Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"The process is its own reward" *

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing." --W. Edwards Deming

I get asked about my writing process a fair bit, so I thought I'd share an example of how I work, from initial draft to final revision. I'm not making any claims that this is the only way, or even the best way. It's just, as Elvis and Sinatra would say, my way.

Here, then, are the opening lines from Dark Jenny, the third Eddie LaCrosse novel due out in spring 2011.

This is how it read when I first wrote it:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s tavern accompanied by a blast of snow-laden winter air. An irate chorus demanded he close the door at once, some with pithier language that implied carnal relations with livestock.

Gary was used to that sort of response. He kicked the door shut, shook snow off his long coat and looked around until he spotted me. “LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”


Things I like: the initial description of Gary Bunson.
Things I don't like: everything else.

This does describe the scene as I saw it in my mind. But the writing doesn't have any rhythm. It leaves a lot unclear, and the humor doesn't work at all.

So here's the same passage, revised:

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. An irate chorus erupted at once, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with my girlfriend Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”


Specific changes:
Moved the paragraph break to the beginning of the dialogue.
Removed the overkill phrase "snow laden" as a modifier for "winter air."
Changed "demanded" to "erupted" to make it clear that the tavern's patrons were particularly put out.
Removed the word "pithier," because that was clear in context.
Changed "he shook snow off his long coat" to "he shook snow from his long coat," because it just sounded better (sometimes that's the only reason you have for making a change, and it's perfectly legitimate).
Clarified where Eddie was while this was happening: seated at the bar with his girlfriend Liz.

This is definitely better, but it still jars in places. So, third and final revision (and how the text will appear in the book):

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. Immediately an irate chorus erupted, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”


This time the revisions are minor, but no less important. They include:
Changed "An irate chorus erupted at once..." to "Immediately an irate chorus erupted..."
Added a phrase to the third sentence so it now reads, "Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind..." It both clarifies the character's reaction and establishes his attitude.
And finally, removed the words that identified Liz as "my girlfriend." I want my books to be wide open, so that even if this third one is the first a reader picks up, he or she can easily follow the story. But "my girlfriend" felt awkward, and the relationship is established within the next few pages anyway.

Not every passage gets three revisions. Some get none, some get a dozen. And there's no way to tell until you start working on them. One trick that never fails to show me problem spots is to read the text aloud to myself. Not in my head; out loud, using my voice. I recommend that to anyone.

So, writers out there: how does this compare to your process?

*Amelia Earhart

2 comments:

David J. West said...

Great tip's Alex, thanks. I'm looking forward to reading Dark Jenny.

And, can I ask if a portion of the Dark Jenny tale predates events in Sword-Edged Blonde? Seems like I remember references to that in Burn Me Deadly.

Teresa said...

I love seeing how anyone works through their manuscript, Alex. Thanks for showing us how you do it.

I do something similar, depending on how the scene is coming to me. Whether it's action, description, or dialogue I get the essence of the scene down first. Then I go back through and see where I need to make my sentences flow from one thought to the next.

I look for places where I've left out my POV characters thoughts or feelings. Finally, I read it out loud to catch clumsy phrases and check the rhythm of the sentences. I also edit places where I've expressed the same thought more than once, you know, saying the same thing in a different way, I take those senteneces out. ;-)

Sometimes it all comes together on the first round, but most of the time, I’m tweaking a word hear or a phrase there to improve the flow.