Friday, December 24, 2010

Kill Your Darlings, or: Hurry Up and Rescue Me, Muse!

One of the obstacles facing us indie writers, or any writer, really, is finding people who have the editorial sense to give our manuscripts the review they deserve—not just a read where somebody says something nice about it. I’m talking about a “this works, this doesn’t, this makes no sense” kind of read. In other words, we need somebody who isn’t afraid to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

I have auditioned several folks in this area with varying degrees of success; the most recent was my friend Beth, who was good at spotting the typos and pesky grammar problems that plague all writers, but she didn’t like my subject matter of heroes and villains and shoot-em-up-bang-bang with a few sexy babes thrown in for color. She preferred mysteries of the cozy variety, where the Old Ladies Knitting Circle solves crimes without ever leaving their knitting circle, and the murderer confesses because one of the old ladies has a cat who stares at him funny. She read my newest manuscript, Show No Mercy, which I want to release in January, but this spy thriller in the James Bond mode wasn’t her thing. She could not get into the story, did not care about the characters, and had no comment as to whether or not the plot and situations made any sense. And that’s fine. She was up front about her prejudices, and I didn’t hold it against her. She found a few mistakes, and those mistakes were corrected. But I needed another reader.

Enter my friend Michael, who once edited his college newspaper, and told me that gave him all the experience necessary for what I needed. Plus, he reads a ton of thrillers and we discuss new books quite often. It wouldn’t hurt, thought I, to let him try. But…

Michael and I had a conversation recently about the book; he’d only just started reading, hadn’t progressed very far. He did say, however, that he thought some of the minor characters the hero meets within the first 30 pages should get their own book.

“Eh?” said I. “You mean the cardboard people who are there only to provide a clue or information for the hero to advance his investigation? Those are the characters you like?”

Calling them cardboard is a mistake as I try to infuse even the minor folks with some bits of characterization, but I wonder if maybe I went too far, and didn’t give the hero enough to catch Michael’s attention. What does he think of the hero?

“Oh, yeah, he’s cool. I like his name.” (They’re both named Michael.)

I guess that’s a decent comment but it didn’t have the enthusiasm he showed for the minor folks.

Further questioning revealed that Michael hasn’t read far enough to form an opinion on the hero or the supporting players (whom he hasn’t met yet). But it made me think: Did I do the job right? Had I properly set up the hero, Michael Dodge, as somebody to root for?

Immediately I went through my notes and the story itself. I think I did all right. The mystery begins as soon as we meet Dodge, a C.I.A. operative, and he’s confronted with the idea that his mentor may have turned against the Agency. Right away he’s eager to learn the truth. We get a little about his background and his habits (he’s a good poker player, drinks rum-and-Coke, and has the usual heroic skill with a pistol and gadgets). What we don’t have as we meet Dodge, but we see in the minor characters, are traits. One fellow eats with his mouth open; the other has a hair cut which leaves some strands dangling over his ears. Are those enough to really make a reader want to see more of them?

I asked myself, “What first grabbed me about James Bond, when we meet him in Casino Royale (the book, not the movie—I’m an Ian Fleming purist and think the movies suck). Why did I find Mack Bolan sympathetic when I read War Against the Mafia? What is it about Matt Helm that made me want to read more about him? Why do I like Mike Hammer? Why is Dirty Harry so exciting? Why do I still read the Dan Track books that I collected ages ago?

Then I thought to myself, It’s too soon to analyze this. He hasn’t even finished the book yet.

I may be over thinking this, of course, but it’s the kind of critical thinking that a writer must do. If something isn’t working, it needs to be fixed, and if Dodge needs something more, I will give him more (perhaps a physical flaw that makes him less than perfect), but I won’t do any altering of the manuscript until Michael finishes the entire book.

This reminds me of a funny story regarding my last book, Justified Sins, which has been my best-seller so far. I wasn’t sure anybody would like the hero, a vigilante named Pierce, but most readers have said that they liked him very much, and took the news that I didn’t think I would do a second Pierce novel very hard (I have since changed my mind because a great idea came to mind). They want to see more of him, learn more of his story. Why? I didn’t give Pierce any more characterization than I have given Dodge. But readers find Pierce compelling. For some reason.

But I need to wait until Michael finishes the book before I do anything rash.

Meanwhile, I think the conversation made me focus a little more. It’s the thought process a writer must go through, time and time again, because to think we “know it all” is, literally, poison. We have to be ready to alter what we think is perfect. The good news is, my muse, if you will, always provides a solution.

Hopefully, when Michael finishes marking up my manuscript, he will be as excited to see more of Michael Dodge as I am to write about him, and will be able to answer more questions. I have four more Dodge books planned, so if this one takes off, more will quickly follow. It will be a few more weeks until my new reader finished the story, but in the end I think he’ll give it the kudos I think it deserves.

If he doesn't, it's back under the hood for some fine tuning.

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