Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bringing Back the Dead, or: Those Old Novels Aren't Really Bad, Are They?

My friend and fellow author Rebecca Forster is uploading her impressive backlist to the Kindle Store, and is currently going through some of her earliest romance novels to add to the list. She's learned a lot over the last 25 years, so hearing her commentary about her old books has been interesting. She would change a lot, of course, but she's not doing a heavy edit--she wants to respect the writer she was at the time. She inspired me to go back to some of my old books to see if there's anything worth salvaging. I hadn't thought to do so before because I didn't think there was any there there, if you know what I mean, and my apologies to Ms. Stein. Why? I'll get to that in a minute. And if you pay attention, you may learn something.

There are four books I'm looking at, but this article concerns what I'm editing now, Bullet for One, a private eye revenge thriller I wrote and rewrote between 1999-2001. This was a very personal story for me at the time, as it was my first attempt at a crime novel after taking a whirlwind tour through the hard-boiled canon the year prior to starting the book. Never mind the plot. It's simpler to say it's an I, the Jury riff but I tried to do my own thing with it.

Of course, it has flaws. There is a lot of overwriting, and a lot of needless words and description, but that is easily fixed. What I was afraid of, though, was a serious lack of characterization, and one-dimensional characters as a whole. I didn't know much about characterization in 1999-2001. I just wrote stuff. The characters were alive to me, but I was knocked over when another writer friend said the characters did nothing for him and seemed lifeless.

I stopped writing for a bit after that and learned everything I could about how to bring a character to life. I think those lessons have served my recent work very well.


Going back through BfO, I'm noticing a few things. Characters are described. They have set behavior patterns. Outside stories (related to the main plot) and inside stories (their own personal story arcs). It's simple characterization. They're types, they exist to do specific things, but I don't see anything wrong with that. You could make the case that my three novels already on Kindle have the same sort of characterization. But as I'm reading the manuscript I find myself wondering what my friend actually read, because it appears he wasn't reading my book. Either that, or he has a different idea of what characterization is than I do.

I'm not suggesting there isn't room for improvement, and that's what my current edit is for. And I'm not sorry I stopped writing for a few months while I learned the craft a little better. That process didn't hurt, and if I knew then what I know now, I could have raised reasonable doubt about the critique. But what I think you need to learn, as I just have, is that one person's opinion does not mean a work is inferior or unworthy of a reader's time. A manuscript is not a sculpture carved from rock, wherein you must start over with a new rock if you make a mistake. Manuscripts can be fixed--easily--either through editing or a total rewrite. But BfO does not warrant a rewrite. It just needs a little massaging.

I think my friend was wrong. It's a good book, and the characters are not lifeless. And when I'm done, it will be a better book. And you'll get to see just how good it is when I release it in a few months.

If you have somebody read your stuff, have two or three people do it. Don't live or die by the approval of one person.

I think Stephen King made the same point in On Writing, which I read a long time ago when it first came out....

But I must not have paid attention.


  1. I'm a graduate of many adult ed writing workshops and it's a little surprising how many people (sometimes decent writers) just don't GET writing outside their comfort level. I remember a class about 8 years ago and was shocked to find that half the class wanted to write Harry Potter knockoffs. Those folks did not want to read about a fistfight -- they didn't even want to read about people over 20 years old.

    Dan Luft

  2. Dan,
    I appreciate your comment. You are also probably right, or at least in the ball park, but part of me wants to give my reader the benefit of the doubt less I be accused of ignoring an otherwise important critique. But I think I was open-minded enough. You should keep this in mind when you start shopping your short story around. Just because one person passes doesn't mean it's a bad story.