Writing Tips: Editing
Don't Be Afraid to Slash and Burn
After every book, I could write a full-length article on editing and it would be different each and every time.
First: some books are easier than others.
This isn’t to say that writing a full-length thriller is easy. It’s not. Every book needs editing, and after 44 books I can state with confidence that every one of those books is better because of editorial input.
But, some books seem to flow smoother from beginning to end. Meaning, I sit down and write and don’t face major story roadblocks. The ideas just come organically and I am immersed in the story. Sure, I will then go through and do a thorough edit, but I’m not deleting full chapters (or five) in the process. THE WRONG VICTIM was one of those books.
There were a few others that were “easy” — the last Maxine Revere book ABANDONED, a couple of the Lucy Kincaid books — STALKED, COLD SNAP, and BREAKING POINT come to mind — and so far, my current work-in-progress seems to be fairly smooth (though I’m having some plot issues I’m working through to make sure that the legal process my character is going through is plausible.)
But some books are HARD. Not just HARD but hair-pulling-out, head-banging-on-wall, pour-me-a-drink-or-three exercises. The book every writer fears will be their last because everything they write feels wrong.
THE SORORITY MURDER was like that. I honestly can’t tell you why I struggled so much with that book. I ended up hiring an outside editor then doing two rounds of revisions with my editor at MIRA because the book just wasn’t working for me. In the end, I was very happy with the final story, but getting there was torture.
I wrote in “Spear the Monster” about one such book that I struggled with, but I struggled with SILENCED for different reasons than I struggle with other books.
The Waiting Game
I was thinking about writing and editing as I sit here today waiting for three revision letters from my editors. The writing process for the three books was very different.
Well, that’s not completely true. My writing process is generally the same — I don’t plot. I start with an idea, character, premise and work from there. Often I see the opening scene or close to the opening scene, and work from there. I write 1,000-3,000 words a day; the next day I edit what I wrote the day before and write another 1-3K, and so on. When I get stuck, I start re-reading from the beginning, edit, cut, and hope to figure out where my story went wrong.
But thinking about these three books reminded me, again, that some books are easier than others.
Of the three, SEVEN GIRLS GONE — the fourth Quinn & Costa book — was the “easiest.” I had a story idea — very loosely based on the Jeff Davis 8, an unsolved series of murders in Louisiana — and I ran with it. I knew where it started, I knew why my characters were there, and while I didn’t know who the killer(s) were, I was confident I would solve the crime. I wrote the book pretty much straight through with only a few short dead ends I discovered almost immediately. By the time I turned it in, I was thrilled with the book. I expect my editorial revisions to be relatively light — probably tightening, trimming, and making sure I wrapped up all the loose ends.
The hardest of the three was DON’T OPEN THE DOOR. I don’t know if my struggles were because this is the sequel to THE SORORITY MURDER and I had lingering creative trauma from that book, or if it was because it was an emotional book to write. Probably a combination of the two — plus one other key difference. For this book, I wrote a very long and detailed synopsis. I hate writing synopses — but my short (3 page) summary wasn’t enough for my editor. She wanted more, so we went back and forth and in the end, I knew everything that was going to happen in the book … and I didn’t want to write it.
Part of my joy in writing is the journey. Knowing how the book ends took away the joy of discovery. And as I wrote, I kept facing a synopsis that wasn’t quite working for me. In the end, the only way I could overcome writer’s block was to forget I wrote the synopsis and write the story organically, as I usually do.
Another problem was that DOOR is an emotional book. As a mom, thinking about losing a child terrifies me. I wanted to be authentic, but in doing so, it opened dark, disturbing thoughts. Here I was solving the worst crime a mother can face — the death of her child — and it was hard. With my other books my characters are cops, FBI agents, investigators — they have emotional weight, but the crimes don’t carry the same weight as the death of ones own child. In the end, after two major rewrites before I even turned in the book, I finally see the potential of the story and am happy with the direction. I expect to dig in and do a very thorough revision once I receive my editor’s notes to make sure this book is as strong as my others.
Because the one thing I strive to do is make each book as good — or better — than the last. I owe it to myself, and I owe it to my readers.
My First Stand Alone
The third book I’m waiting on is currently untitled. It’s not a book I’ve talked about because I wasn’t sure it would ever get done. It will be a true stand alone.
I wrote the first draft … wow, about eight years ago! I wanted a story about family and forgiveness that was also a race-against-time thriller. The core story was about two kids — a 15 year old girl and her 10 year old brother — who are in a plane crash in the Adirondacks with their estranged father. Bad guys are chasing them as they try to escape in a snow storm. I really loved this story and thought it was good.
My agent read it and basically said, “This isn’t it.” His two core problems were 1) the plane crash doesn’t happen until page 100 and while everything leading up to it sets up the mystery, it’s just not that exciting and 2) the bad guys didn’t have strong enough motivations — they were too stereotypical. There were other issues with the book, but those two problems basically killed the story.
I shelved it. It wasn’t contracted, so I wasn’t too worried about it — I had been trying something different, it didn’t work out, I needed to work on books I was being paid for.
But — I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.
In 2017, I tried to address the book again and came up with a slightly different twist. I wrote a detailed synopsis (I hate writing synopses — as I mentioned above) and my agent liked the direction a bit better, but didn’t feel it was strong enough.
So I shelved it again.
Then, in early 2019, I had an epiphany. I wanted a story about family and forgiveness, but it also needed to be about sacrifice — and that’s how I created Tony Reed. He was the enforcer for a crime family until he rescued two kids and lived with them off-the-grid to protect them. Until their criminal father found them five years later — on page one.
My agent was right: I needed to start the story faster. And I needed a much stronger motivation for the bad guys — what stronger motivation than family and betrayal?
I moved the story from the Adirondacks to the Rocky Mountains, an area I’m more familiar with. I still have Kristen, my 15 year old heroine, and her 10 year old deaf brother Ryan. And there is still a plane crash during the first major winter storm — but everything else changed. It took two years to write because I wrote it in fits and spurts in between books that had deadlines, but when I finally typed THE END and read the story all the way through, I loved it. It’s exactly what I wanted to write — a race-against-time thriller about family, sacrifice, mistakes, and forgiveness.
I suspect my edits will be moderate — not as light as SEVEN and not as heavy as DOOR. And I can’t wait. Honestly, I’m looking forward to all of them!
Don’t Be Afraid
No writer likes to delete their words. We want to think that everything we write is amazing when we write it and worth reading … but it’s not. I’ve never been afraid to slash and burn, but too many writers I’ve talked to are scared to death. They either think they’re amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing if they have to cut something, or they think they’re idiots who can’t write — so they don’t write. Or — even worse — they think everything they write is brilliant and if readers or New York agents don’t see that, then they are the problem, not the writing.
The truth is, every author worth her salt needs to learn how to self-edit. Whether that means cutting whole chapters or tweaking a scene, it’s all important to crafting the best story for your readers. Not every word you write needs to stay on the page. Not every chapter needs to be in the book.
When I wrote TELL NO LIES, the second Quinn & Costa book, it took me two months to write the opening chapters. I knew something wasn’t working. I was writing and rewriting and not happy with the story. I then interviewed two experts — a wildlife biologist and an environmental sciences professional — and realized that my biggest problem wasn’t the plot but how the story started. The spark. The scene that excites my readers into wanting to know what happened. I had made some faulty assumptions and I think, subconsciously, I knew they were faulty.
I started at the wrong place in the story. I needed a prologue. To those who don’t like prologues? I don’t care. This book needed it.
My core plot worked, but the set-up didn’t — because of what I learned from the experts.
My book focuses on an undercover FBI investigation in a small mining town in Arizona. The prologue is not a red herring, because the events are important to the story, but they’re important for reasons other than what readers and my lead characters think.
On the second point, this was a problem because I wrote a damn synopsis. I was trying so hard to stick to my core set-up, but it wasn’t working. It was going to be convoluted, no matter how cool the concept. The story itself is the same … but the way my FBI team gets involved in the investigation is completely different. And it turned out so much better.
I’m often asked how I can tell what needs to be fixed, especially since I don’t plot. For me it’s about enthusiasm for my story. When I came up with the original idea for TELL NO LIES, I was really excited. But as I got into it, it wasn’t working — it fell flat. I went back and wrote SEVEN different opening chapters — different viewpoint characters, different times, starting with the bad guy, then Kara, then Matt, then a new character, then a secondary character — and nothing felt right. Then I talked to my brother-in-law, the wildlife biologist, and he said one thing in our hour long conversation that took me in a completely different direction … and I wrote the prologue. Completely new, but those pages excited me like nothing else had. Once I get excited about the story, I know I’m on the right path.
My general rule of thumb is: if I’m bored, my readers will be bored. If I’m excited, my readers will be excited.
And my advice to writers? Love what you’re writing. If you love it, you’ll do what it takes to fix any flaws. It sounds cliche, but writing is truly a labor of love. It’s hard job, but absolutely worth it.
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