Monday, May 6, 2013

Fixing a Bad Beginning and Pacing Mysteries (and Probably Other Genres, too)

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I finished a book last week that I’d started several months ago.  I’ve mentioned before that every book I’ve worked on has been different…some are harder to write than others.  This was my twelfth book and the fifth in a series.  You’d think that it would have been a snap to write.  It wasn’t.

I talked a little about all the trouble the book was giving me in this post.  I mentioned that I was planning on finishing the draft, then figuring out what the problem with the book was.  When I wrote this post I’d put my finger on the problem with the book—I’d given too much away at the beginning of the book (particularly troublesome with a mystery…where the whole point is for the reader to help figure out the crime.)  In that post, I outlined ways to prevent yourself from getting in that predicament to begin with.

Since I’d already put myself in a tight spot, and I never revise books until I’ve finished the first draft, I had to fix the book later.  In case anybody else is facing the same type of revision, I thought I’d do a quick overview on how I was able to fix the problem quickly (the revisions took less than a week…working about one to two hours a day. With a sick child in the house…sigh. So, not a huge time investment on my part.)

If you realize, as you’re writing your first draft, that you’ve got a problem, change course where you are and write the rest of the book with the fix already in place. First of all, I made notes as I was writing to indicate where I was starting off writing the revised text.  I had a character who had a financial motive to murder the victim.  I gave away that motive way too soon.  So, when I realized that as I was drafting the book, I abruptly started writing the rest of the story acting as if I hadn’t given that information away to the reader.  Then I reached the point, two-thirds of the way through the book where I introduced it as a motive.  I marked my manuscript with Word’s highlighter function and made a comment with Track Changes to indicate that point in the story.

I had several of those problems, so I marked the manuscript in several places.  After I was done with the first draft, I returned to the beginning of the book and took every reference to those early motives out and pasted them on a separate Word doc.

I decided the beginning of the book was slowly-paced and I copy/cut up to page 70 and then pasted the text on that separate document. 

I wrote a new beginning for the book.  And now the murder occurred in the second chapter. 
I returned to the cut text and found spots in the manuscript to work in the various discoveries (motive, character secrets, etc.) later in the document.  

Some of the original text was scrapped and never added to the document.  Most of the text, however, I added later to the book.

The most important thing, when you chop up your book like this, is to make sure that you read the story through (ad nausem) to ensure that you don’t have anything happening out of sequence.  That’s going to be the biggest problem you face.

One way I double-checked myself was to do a Ctrl F for references.  For example, all the references in my book to life insurance should be in a particular sequence.  So I made a search on Word for life insurance and then made sure all the references were in sequential order.  So it needed to look like:  police indicate there may have been a policy,  rumors are that this was a significant policy, policy was on the wife/victim only, husband was having financial difficulty, etc.  

Sometimes I've been in such a spot before that I've just rewritten the entire first 1/4 of the book and not even tried to salvage anything.  That can be quicker, depending on how fast you write or how bad the original beginning of the book is.  In this case, though, I figured most of what I'd written still simply needed to be inserted later in the story.

A note on the pacing of traditional mysteries.  I’ve read a good deal of variation with the body’s discovery, introduction of suspects, introduction of motives, etc….but I know that my own editors for my two traditionally published series have particular expectations.  They would like to have a body by page 30.  They would like to have the suspects fairly rapidly in place, but they don’t want the process to be confusing.  They don’t want a bunch of names dumped on the reader all at once.  One editor was happy with 5 or 6 suspects, as long as one of those suspects was bumped off.  This does affect your pace, if you choose to have this many—you’ve not only got to set them up as suspects (introduction, introduction of motive, opportunity), but you’ve also got to interview them.  And you need to have other suspects talk about them.  

The other editor likes fewer suspects…she would actually be delighted with 3 solid suspects (starting out with four and perhaps losing one along the way. )  This makes things sail along pretty quickly…sometimes too quickly, unless you figure out some interesting red herrings, secrets, unanswered questions/smaller mysteries,  sleuth endangerment, to bulk it up a little. 

How do you fix a bad beginning?  Start over from scratch?  Cut and paste?  Save what you can and pitch the rest?  How do you keep the story moving in your own book?