Rewriting and promises made to the reader

I used to hate rewriting. I never actually did it for the longest time; a first draft was a finished draft as far as I was concerned, but in my defence my first…dozen? books weren’t worth the time and energy to rewrite them. My early work were episodic with no overplot. I’d think of something cool, have them do that, then repeat until I’d written enough that it looked like a book.

Then, in my twenties, I started to figure out plot, but fell into the trap of having characters go places and talk to people. 80% of the text was the two characters going to that place where the thing had already happened, they’d talk to a survivor (and if none existed, they’d raise the dead long enough to have a quick chat) and then move on to the next bit. That formula works for Jonathan Kellerman in his later works, but it’s such a cheat for the rest of us. Action should happen on the page.

Then, in 2005, I wrote Misbegotten. An early draft of Drunks, Fools and Kings. I’d read a short story about a younger brother going in to talk to his older brother who was the king, and that dynamic just fascinated me. The story completely botched it; the younger brother turned out to be the villain and the draconian king really the good guy, but I wanted to play around in a world where the younger brother loved his older brother so much he’d follow the man off a cliff if he had to.

Again, they went places and talked to people, but I loved the world. Going to Worldcon that year and hearing that if I wanted to sell the story, I’d have to massacre it didn’t make any sense until I reread the story. Then it made perfect sense. I spent two years rewriting, reworking and editing the crap out of the book, but no matter what I did with it, “it” wasn’t there.

Back in 2005 I got into the erotica market. So while I was fussing around with Draft 3 version 7 of the high fantasy, I was also writing the vampire books, which mostly came out fully formed. Working with my editor, Judi Davith was amazing. She got my sometimes chaotic word salad that came out and adjusted it to what I meant to say. In the years between 2006 and 2009 I pumped out ten different novels and a bunch of novellas. Urban fantasy comes easy for me; the world is already there. You’re just adding the problems and the people. Adding that extra layer of world building is just a layer of unreality over reality. The more real your world is, the more dramatic the magic feels.

Beating the Troll’s Heart is one of those stories that burst through pretty much intact. I don’t know where my world is going when I start the story and any idea I have as to who my characters are and what they want are usually vague or incomplete. Rewriting at this stage is just going back and putting the end of the book into the beginning, and putting the beginning of the book into the end. A lot of throw away lines in the beginning become the cornerstone that bears the weight of the end of the story, whereas what I thought would be a significant plot point never gets revisited. Cutting out what never converted into anything is a really big thing. You make a promise to your reader that everything you say matters. It’s the original murder your darlings. If it can be cut, it should be. If it can’t, you need to change the prose so that it’s important at least one other place in the book, if not more.

These aren’t formulas, they’re recipes. Respecting the ingredients you put in at the beginning of the story absolutely impacts your finished results. There’s a lot of deleting. It’s better to overload the beginning and give your future self as much rope as it needs to make the finished product than set out only one possibility of future actions. No one ever needs to see your first draft. It’s good to have an ending in mind when you start the story, but if that’s not where your path leads, forcing the story into a direction it doesn’t want to go causes stress fractures. And those stress fractures are going to be the point at which the reader fails.

I used to think that there are no second chances, but then I remember my complicated relationship with Andrew Pyper. His first two books failed to deliver on the promise of the beginning of the book, but there was more than enough potential for me to give him another chance and by the Damned, I was hooked. But that’s not a second chance so much as it was suspending my judgement until I knew for sure I wasn’t going to like this guy or I was going to find a book I love. I have to say, though, I bought his first two books, but took the rest of them out from the library. It is so much easier to try to make sure your book delivers on its promises than hope the reader will be magnanimous.

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