“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” ~Michael Crichton
By PJ Parrish
Hi there, crime dogs. Today I’d like to revisit one of our First Page critiques. Not because I think that the submitting writer needs to be raked over the coals once more. This time, I’d like to show (rather than tell) what a little judicious rewriting can do.
Rewriting is dear to my heart. It reminds me, at times, of the despair I used to feel in my sculpture classes when I was a college art major. I was terrible at anything involving three-dimensional design. I aced portraiture, watercolor, acyrlic and oil. But when it came to creating something out of a piece of wood, clay or plaster, I was really bad. Don’t know why…it’s just the way my brain is wired. I had to work really really hard in 3D design. It didn’t come naturally to me.
So those of you out there struggling with the structure of your book, I feel your pain. I know how hard it is to take a lumpy gray mass of hot mess and try to turn it into something with shape, definition and, yeah, even beauty.
Which brings me back to our topic of the day — rewriting. You can’t fear it. You shouldn’t fight it. You must embrace it. I read one writer who described rewriting as trying to scrub the basement floor with a toothbrush. But it needn’t be that gruesome. Writing may not come naturally to you, but you can be better at it if you try. Rewriting is how you get all the bad stuff out of your system.
It’s okay in your first draft to use cliches, stale metaphors, boring chapter endings, bad transitions, unoriginal description. It’s okay to have potholes in your plot, flaccid character development, turgid backstory. Get it all out there, keep moving forward, finish the draft. Philip Roth once described a first draft as a floor that, once in place, he could walk upon.
So build your floor. Then go back over it and do the hard work. Don’t despair. Trust that you can do it. Your pencils should always outlast your erasers. I think Nabokov said that.
Now, back to the First Pager. Last month, I critiqued a submission titled Scarlet Lies. It wasn’t bad, but it had some basic problems. The writer asked if I would read her second attempt. Because her attitude was so receptive, I agreed. I will let you see how things went. First, here’s the original:
Scarlet crossed the multi-lane city street without checking for oncoming traffic. They would stop. And if they didn’t, what of it? A few horns blared and she clicked her heels across the road, the sun blaring in her eyes through the smog and haze. A man sat across the street, watching the foot traffic from a cafe table. He drank from a small, cream-colored mug.
Was that him?
Yes. It was. It was him. She couldn’t believe she saw him there, just on the other side of the street, drinking coffee, existing. How long had it been? Two years?
“Guy! Hey! Guy!” She hustled, her voice screeching and her gait reminiscent of a baby calf with awkward, tiny steps. Her skirt was tight, the shopping bags she carried were bulky, and her stilettos were sharp. The traffic did stop for her.
The man turned and watched her wobbling approach. She was grinning. He was not.
He said nothing, creasing his brow and sipping his coffee. He ended the call he was on. Slid his phone into his pocket. His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance.
She was radiant, elbowing people out of the way to get to him and straightening her walk.
“Guy! How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She stepped through the cafe gate and sat at the table with him. She raised her hand at a server, waving her over. A young woman approached and looked at the two of them, waiting. Scarlet looked at Guy, and blinked a couple of times.
“The lady will have an extra-hot Americano with a half-pump of hazelnut and a pitcher of cream on the side, please.” He looked up at the waiter apologetically.
“Oookay. One very special nearly hazelnut Americano and some creamer coming up.” She forced a smile, rolled her eyes and walked away. Scarlet beamed at Guy, biting her lip.
“You remember my coffee. You were always so thoughtful. How are you, though? Really?” She leaned towards him.
He looked at her for a moment, not returning the smile. “I’m good. I’m surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.”
“Really? Why is that?”
He didn’t answer. He sipped his coffee and stared at her.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“I doubt that.”
Now here’s the second version she sent to me:
Scarlet crossed six lanes of traffic on East 57th street without looking. New York hadn’t claimed her life yet, but she felt it would be an easier fate than dealing with her mother’s charity gala tomorrow. How was she supposed to find a speaker when she’d only been released for two days? As usual, her mother’s demands were unreasonable.
Tires screeched as she strutted across the road, the sun blazing in her eyes through the smog. A Ferrari skidded to a halt and blared its multi-tone horn.
“Watch it, lady!” A man yelled out the window at her.
She held up her middle finger at him as she stepped onto the sidewalk.
Scarlet walked two more blocks towards her target. A coffee shop, apparently. She double checked the location on her phone as she approached.
Then, serenity. She saw Michael sitting at a cafe table, talking on his phone and flipping through a notebook. Scarlet smiled, knowing her luck at finding him here would probably be considered closer to criminal stalking, but he would benefit from her charming companionship, regardless of what he claimed to believe or what he had said to her the last time they parted. That was two long years ago, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly.
His olive complexion had deepened in the summer sun, and he had opted not to shave for a few days, giving him a rough, careless appearance. He was absorbed in his conversation. Next to him, steam curled from a small, cream-colored mug. Her heart pounding, she watched the image of him flicker in and out of view between the gray masses of people elbowing their way around her.
She hadn’t spoken to him since the fire. Since he “swore her off.” Well. Time to change that. She adjusted her skirt and walked through the cafe gate.
The man froze in place for a moment and then looked up, his face stony. She was grinning. He was not.
She heard him bark a quick “call you later,” and he slid his phone into his pocket.
“How are you? It’s been forever!” She was breathless. She down sat at the table with him, dropping her shopping bags on the ground beside her.
He looked at her for a moment, dread and quiet disbelief on his face. “I’m honestly a bit surprised to see you, Scarlet. Out in the wild.” He gestured in the air around him.
Scarlet raised her voice an octave and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Well! Vacation’s over.”
“Vacation?” He pressed his lips together, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think so. Did you break out, or did your parents pay?”
She smiled again. “I’ve missed you.”
So, what is improved by the rewriting? Let’s try to break it down. Again, this is just my opinion:
- Scarlet is much more likable now. Some of you liked her better than I did, but I found her sort of ditzy and wondered if readers would want to follow her for an entire book. Now, I think she comes across as just high-spirited. Big difference. I don’t know what sort of sub-genre the writer is going for here, but the light tone makes me think this would be appropriate for romantic suspense, straight romance, or cozy. What’s better now is that the tone is more consistent, and that’s important. Some writers never quite grasp the idea that you have to have a tone for your story — light, dark, hard-boiled, historical, whatever — and every word and sentence you write has to support that tone.
- We now know where we are geographically. Important to establish that right away.
- The dialogue is much better. Do you notice how just separating the dialogue from surrounding narrative makes it look cleaner? Easier to read for today’s writers. If you go back and read older fiction, you’ll notice this may not be true. But for today’s market seems to demand it. It’s a matter of taste and trends but it’s good to be aware of it.
- Point of view: This is where the writer really improved things. In the original, the POV wavered between Scarlet, the man, and wandered up into omniscient. Again, this is a modern trend, but being firmly in one character’s POV at a time is important in today’s market.
One last thing I pointed out to the writer: We don’t know what genre she’s working in here, but if it is suspense or mystery, it is crucial to pretty quickly establish some kind of disruption in Scarlet’s life. Something has to go wrong, or you have to drop hints that something ALREADY has gone wrong — and that THIS is what your story is really about. I advised her to not waste too much more time on chit-chat between Scarlet and Michael unless it supports this. His dialogue about the breaking out and her being out in the wild hints at it, but the writer still needs move the CONFLICT closer to the front of the stage. And you don’t want to wait too long to do this.
So, end of object lesson. Thank you — again! — dear writer for letting us learn as you do. And to remind us that in baseball, you only get three strikes. But in writing, you get as many as you need. I think Neil Simon said that…or maybe it was Yogi Berra.