Beginning (again, and again)

Gung hai fat choy, to you all. It’s the lunar New Year, which makes it appropriate that we talk about beginnings.

Some beginnings are quiet and inexorable. Others take rather more work. The beginnings of TOUCHSTONE are proving to be the latter. Then again, with three main characters whose voices need nailing down early on and a complicated political and social situation to work out, I suppose it’s best to start out in the key I intend to stay in.

Generally, I don’t do a lot of rewrite-as-you-go. I write the stuff as a first draft, knowing it’s awful, allowing myself to just write crap, so long as I’m writing. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop what I’m doing and go back a chapter or six in order to work out my thoughts on a character or a plot development, since it’s nearly impossible for my mind to make any sense of an outline. I don’t think in outlines, I think in story lines, and although I may occasionally sketch out how I see the story developing, it’s merely a sequence of events, not anything with structure to it.

Some writers take this get-it-right approach to an extreme, refusing on principle to go past a sentence until that sentence is absolutely Right. Personally, I’m sufficiently compulsive that if I adopted that approach, I’d never get past the first paragraph.

All writing is compromise, and writing done with any degree of commercial awareness in it especially so. If I don’t get this book’s first draft finished by the time THE ART OF DETECTION comes out on May 30, I’m in trouble, because a tour eats up a month or more and that will put me past deadline. And since May is filled with the Edgars, a possible trip to Italy for those publishers, and an event both exciting and terrifying that you’ll hear about later, that means TOUCHSTONE needs to reach its end by the end of April.

I don’t have the leisure to go back and fiddle endlessly with the beginning.

At the same time, this is going to be a big book, and the direction needs to be clear before I proceed. Some books grow from a seed, organically–THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE, for example, has virtually the exact beginning pages I sat down and wrote as my first venture into crime; TOUCHSTONE feels more like a building being raised, and the architect sort of needs to have the foundations pretty clear in order to see what’s coming.

That last image comes from the dreams I’ve been having, of things crumbling and falling apart literally underfoot. The back of my head seems to be pretty insistent that I get things solid before I go much further. So I rewrite the beginning, taking material out (necessary material–I’ll use it later), filling out the physical descriptions of the three main characters we’ve met so far, honing their words so that each one could only have said what he said, (yes, all three men at this point), making sure that the place and the objects they come in touch with are all reflective of where the plot is going: the main character’s house, for example, and the villain’s overcoat.

I’m nearly ready to move on to chapter two, and allow the story to begin moving across the British countryside from Cornwall to Berkshire.

Not that the tweaking is over, by a long run. No doubt I’ll continue to fiddle with the opening pages until the manuscript goes off to my editor in May, and then again when I’m working on the copyedited version over the summer. Perhaps when it’s all over, I’ll post the several versions on the web site, a lesson in the art of rewrite.

Or, “Can’t I ever get it right the first time?”

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  1. Vicki Larson on January 29, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    I am beginning to read “Califia’s Daughters” and find it fascinating. I notice it was copyrighted in 2004. When did you write it? Thank you so much for your blog. It is very instructive to a would be novelist who is now a painter.

  2. Anonymous on January 30, 2006 at 3:40 am

    Laurie … Thanks for opening up your process for us to see. It’s nice to hear how similarly we approach the adventure of writing, and to hear you acknowledge your beginnings as “crap”, accept them, and continue plodding away until the product refines itself. Too often, we berate ourselves over the quality of those first fragile beginnings … wander off to lick our wounds instead of fighting the good fight. You inspire me to trust the process and move past the critical self-judgements. Iris

  3. Anonymous on January 30, 2006 at 2:56 pm


    Again and again thanks so for the conversations in this blog. An additional family this.

    The day to dayness of the blog wrapped around the art of writing is such a brillant combination.

    I appreciated your referral to M.J.Rose’s page for the article on the art of editing. I saved it for the author references.

    Your workshop that I attended at Poison Pen on editing however, was far more useful. The reason being you gave concrete examples (handouts) of your work before editing and after. Of course you also explained in wonderous detail ‘how’ and ‘why’ you did what you did.

    So yes, please later do share the various drafts of TOUCHSTONE with us. Much learning we will gain.

    The University of Laurie R.King, Berkely et al get back!

    My best,


  4. Jennifer Ice on January 30, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    Dear Laurie,
    Thanks for walking us through your writing process. I am knee deep in the second half of that process now, the re-writing part. It turns out we have similar deadlines. When the Art of Detection comes out Judy and I (your enthusiastic Oregon readers) will be in England, visiting the various places Russell and Holmes spend time at in the first four books and the beginning of The Game. My goal is to have my book completely done and off to the various agents I have pitched to before I leave. April sounds like a good deadline. I hope you don’t mind being my blog mentor. It always helps to not feel alone when the frustration comes. I’ll just read your blog and continue editing.

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