Listening to the story
This part of writing, the rewrite, is why I’m glad I don’t have to produce two or three books a year. And it’s why I’m glad (well, almost glad) that I’m not a writer who locks herself into an outline. Because what I’m doing now is listening to the story.
The first draft gives me the plot, a series of events that leads (with a fervent Oh thank God!) to a conclusion. It’s the rewrite that tells me what it all means. For example, one of the book’s narrative threads involves Mycroft and his position in the Intelligence machinery of 1920s Britain, but only two weeks ago did I listen to the reverberations of that fact, and realize that the thread comes out of an event in the past that carries importance to events in the present (1924 present)—and in the future, will shift what Mycroft looks like, to Russell and to the reader.
In a Murderati post on plot twists the other day, Alexandra Sokoloff says that M. Night Shyamalan went through several drafts of “The Sixth Sense” before realizing that the character who counsels a boy seeing the dead is himself dead. Would that movie make any impact if Shyamalan hadn’t listened closely to the characters and the situation and heard the new direction?
The first draft is fixated on getting down the sequence of events: this and this and this and that. Once the narrative arc is drawn, the writer can stand back and think about the significance. Okay, this book begins where The Language of Bees left off (I’m assuming you saw the first line in the post I did Friday?) Russell is headed across the main island of Orkney with her step-granddaughter, Holmes sets to sea with his wounded son. And in the first draft I figured out where they went and what they did. Now I’m making sure that those events not only make sense, they have an impact.
What would it mean for a 24 year old woman who has never been around children to suddenly be responsible for an intelligent but no doubt frightened three and a half year old? Sure, Russell is omni-competent, but is competence all a small child needs? And because this is suspense fiction and not the leisurely tale of a step-mother’s self-discovery, anything I have to say about that growing relationship, and Russell’s awareness of it, has to be worked into the corner of the action.
Multiply times seven major characters and 420 pages, and you can see why I’m currently working 10 hour days.
This is no doubt why I so rarely read any of my stories after they’re published: because I’m terrified that if I do, the book will tell me something I missed, a revelation that changes everything, and there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it.