The Other Side of the Desk

When the folks at The Kill Zone asked me to join their blog, I hesitated.

Not because this isn’t a wonderful blog. In fact, I think it’s one of the best going and I’ve long been a fan.

But after several years of not blogging, and several years before that writing posts for my own blog and for Murderati, I wondered if a) I was up to the task; and/or b) I had anything worthwhile to contribute.

I guess that’ll be up to you to judge.

For most of my life I’ve wanted to be a professional writer and have succeeded in that goal in a number of ways. I’ve been published in magazines, I’ve sold screenplays, I’ve written for animated TV shows (with the distinction of writing several episodes of what is probably the least popular of all the Spider-Man incarnations), I’ve published books with St. Martin’s Press, Penguin, Amazon, written under pen names for other publishers, including Harlequin, have had books published in several countries, and I’ve even won and been nominated for a couple of awards.

Yes, I’m very tired. And old.

In 2012, after finishing a big project for one of the Big Six, I decided to say goodbye to the “traditional” publishing world and go indie. And I’m convinced that this decision (along with my buddy Brett Battles’s decision to leave Random House) was one of the underlying factors that led to Random Penguin, or whatever they call themselves. They obviously had to join forces in order to compensate for the loss of their two best authors…

No, really.

But I don’t regret the decision to go indie. I’m very happy I took that leap and so is my accountant. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I’m a strong advocate for the DIY approach.

In 2015, however, I went a little crazy and took DIY to new heights and decided to start my own independent publishing company, which has been an interesting and educational experience so far. In the process, I wound up on the other side of the desk, taking in work from other writers and finding myself in the unenviable position of editor.

I say unenviable because editing a book is hard friggin’ work. Harder in some ways than writing the book yourself.

file1461250298916-underwearI have no idea what kind of writer you are, but I can certainly tell you what kind of writer I am. When I turn in my “first” draft to a publisher, I make sure that draft is as clean as a brand new pair of underwear.

Why underwear?

Because my mother used to tell me not to leave the house with holes in my skivvies in case I got into an accident and embarrassed myself at the E.R. Why that would be of any concern to me is a question I never thought to ask her, but you get the point (at least I hope you do).

And if you don’t, the point is this:

Back when I was publishing traditionally, I made sure my drafts were so clean that if I were to drop dead the next day, I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a story full of clunky prose and plot holes and half-baked dialogue.

I’ve always known, in theory, that not all writers are as crazy as I am. And after working with several now, I’ve learned first hand that some will turn in a draft that barely needs to be touched, while others look at the editorial process as a form of collaboration. A way to hone character, plot, story and structure with the guidance of their editor.

Neither way is right or wrong, but working with manuscripts in varying states of completion has taught me a lot about how others work, and has certainly cemented my long-held belief that there is no “single” way of writing a book. That every author must approach the task in a way that makes them feel most comfortable and gets the job done.

file000118281268-crayonsWhat I’ve also discovered is that, because I’m a writer myself, I’m very much a “hands on” kind of editor.

Part of this comes from the nature of the projects I’ve been working on. The premise, characters and series elements are created by me—in house, as they say—then passed on to other writers to do the grunt work. We work very much like a head writer and staff of a television show, and as head writer, I don’t hesitate to take a final pass on the book in order to make it conform to the “rules” of the series and the books that have come before it.

There’s every possibility that the “staff writers” have been grumbling amongst themselves about my sometimes heavy-handed approach, but most of those I’ve worked with have said they very much enjoyed the process and found the task of writing someone else’s characters both challenging and rewarding.

It’s been challenging and rewarding for me, as well.

So what’s the point of all this blather?

Well, it’s merely to lead up to this:

What kind of writer are you? When you turn a draft into your editor (whether indie or traditional) do you take the clean underwear approach, or do you consider the writer-editor relationship more of an exploratory collaboration?

Oh, and how do you feel about heavy-handed editors? I’m not talking copy editors, mind you (many of whom should be drummed out of the business), but content editors or story editors or whatever you want to call them.

And, finally, do you think editors are actually necessary? Because I may surprise you when I say that I don’t believe they always are. But that’s a post for another day.

Thank you to the folks at The Kill Zone for inviting me into the family. Let’s see how long it takes before they want to kick me out… 😉


by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As you could tell from my last (MIA) post I am currently in the throes of a house remodel and thus ‘enjoying’ life without a kitchen or living area (having decamped into the basement), trying to keep everything on schedule, taking the opportunity to buy a new memory foam mattress and deciding whether tile or carpet would be better. I know that a lot of people struggle when it comes to deciding what they want doing to their house when they are thinking about having it remodeled. Some people might just struggle with figuring out where they want a knock out wall to add, whilst others only worry about the color scheme. When we bought our house we knew we would have to undertake some sizable renovations to bring the 1957 ranch house back to its former glory. Although, we are quickly blasting through our budget so I might have to find some cheap, discount furniture in the sales!

Oddly enough, our house remodel coincides with a significant ‘remodel’ I’m undertaking of a story a wrote a couple of years ago. This particular story had a great premise but, for some reason, turned into a way-too-convoluted novel (it took me about a year to realize the novel was actually three stories in one – a YA novel, an adult novel and one novel that was only good for the garbage!).

Once I realized this, I faced a dilemma, should I try to go beyond mere edits and totally ‘remodel’ it, or was the book really only fit to be burned. As it was, I knew my agent loved the main idea (so the foundations were solid) but felt I needed to streamline some of the multiple plot and mythological elements. When I started to pull apart the three different stories, I felt I could see my way clear to writing the YA novel trapped inside. The question was, would I be able to pull off this kind of major renovation?

Gutting most of a novel and starting again creates a number of challenges – not the least of which is ensuring that the new story structure holds together and doesn’t teeter on the edges of the old one. For me, the decisive moment came when I realized that changing the time period provided the ideal opportunity to refashion the story whilst keeping the critical elements in place. After doing further historical research I came to realize that the new time-frame provided a much better grounding for the story and (thankfully) it looked as if the remodelled story would be much stronger and clearer than the original.

Now I feel like, despite the chaos of the physical renovations occurring at my house (estimated to take about 10 weeks…), I’m ready to face this new challenge – especially as the story has been gnawing away at me (which is a good indication it wants to get written) and I have time now that my previous WIP is out on submission. Still – it’s a daunting task.

So, my fellowTKZers, have you ever managed to successfully remodel an old story. If you have, how did you approach the process? How did you gauge whether the story was salvageable? What about if the remodel was a failure – any lessons learned?(Be kind now – for I’m facing not just the cutting block but an HGTV worthy scrape and rebuild…)

First Page Critique

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today’s first page critique is for what I think is a sci-fi thriller. It’s called DEALBREAKER. My comments are at the end. Enjoy!

Mackenzie stood upright with his arms folded, concentrating on the sound made by the wheat on the planets surface far below as it gently swayed in the artificial wind. He cleared his mind of the constant flow of information from his implants, willing the augmented reality overlay to dissolve from his vision. Next he closed his eyes, allowing his arms to fall by his sides as he took cognisance of his own breathing. Finally his mind and body could relax.

Opening his eyes he looked into the distance, his view partially obscured by the huge hexagons of the domed superstructure protecting the buildings and land around him. The eastern horizon was dominated by a wall of dark cloud that blocked the view of the stars beyond. Already the very highest altitudes were tinged with crimson, hinting at the vivid reds and oranges that daylight would soon ignite. By the time the storm reached Dunvegan the sky would be a violent tempest of dust that would shred an EVA suit from anyone caught in the open.

Under normal circumstances the effort to secure all personnel and assets from the deadly weather front would be the companies top priority. Dealing with extreme weather was just part of the way of life on Demeter. It enabled junior operators to prove their worth to the company, and more seasoned figures the chance to prove they were still worth retaining. Mackenzie would rather have been coordinating the effort, ensuring the long range operators had taken sanctuary in the nearest survival dome, that those closer to base had made it back to the safety of Dunvegan. But today wasn’t normal. He’d initially queried the decision to delegate all surface operations to a relatively junior team, but Mackenzie had learned to trust Munro’s judgement during a crises, and had spoken no more about it from that point on.

He allowing his implants to interact with his mind and body again as he lowered his gaze from the horizon to the rest of the city. Calling up a tactical overlay, the numerous dome structures now appeared to take on different colours against the dusty reds and oranges of the planets surface. Most were now either white, to indicate no known disturbance, or a deep blue for those where order had been restored. The majority of red areas were dotted around the civic government quarter in the south of the city. He shook his head slowly and allowed himself a smile. When would they ever learn?


First of all there are numerous grammatical errors/typographical errors that detracted from the story. These include planets instead of planet’s, companies instead of company’s (or companies’ if there are multiple companies involved); crises instead of crisis, allowing instead of allowed. When it comes to an editor, these kind of errors can be fatal. I can’t stress this enough – the occasional typo is forgivable but wholesale grammatical errors are more than likely going to doom your submission. 

That being said, I thought the writer did a great job of providing an atmospheric, intriguing set up to his/her story. My main issue with this as a first page, however, is that it is all set up. There’s only exposition and very little in the way of action to draw the reader in immediately. Now, I am not an avid reader of science-fiction but I expect a writer in this genre needs to balance world-building with action/tension and pacing from the get go. I feel that the book needs to start in a different place – perhaps in the midst of a ‘disturbance’ in one of the domes where order hasn’t been restored and where we (as readers) encounter Mackenzie trying to juggle re-establishing government order while worrying about security and safety given the approaching dust storm.

Although this first page has a definite post-apocalyptic feel I think we need more immediacy to the crisis rather than just background. I also felt that there was too much repetition in terms of color. We have the vivid red which will be ignited once the dust storm arrives and we also have red areas where (I assume) disturbances are occurring within the domes. Though we get the feeling Mackenzie might be in law enforcement we aren’t entirely sure what his role is (does he work for the company? for the government? Who is Munro? Why is today not a normal day?) Most of this can be dealt with later in the first chapter but because this page has so much exposition it feels a little ungrounded without more specificity about Mackenzie and why we should (as readers) care about him as a character. I was also unsure about the significance of the last line or why Mackenzie ‘allowed himself a smile’.

What do you think? 

What is History?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

So I have an idea for a new book and it takes place partly in the early 1980s and it suddenly strikes me that, though I lived through this decade as a young teen, for my own children this era is as much ‘history’ as the Edwardian age is…and then I started to worry, am I really contemplating writing a ‘historical novel’ set in the 1980s?!

I was at a writer’s conference a few years ago and on a ‘historical mystery’ panel I remember an editor saying that ‘the 1980’s are not history’ – at the time, I dismissed the idea out of hand because it seemed such a no-brainer. I mean, the 1980’s – that’s hardly ‘historical’ – but then I started thinking about what happened during this time and my ideas fermented…until, I started to write and then I wondered, so what is the recent past like the 1980’s. Is it history or not?

For the most part, classification hardly matters, but when contemplating writing a novel set in the early/mid 1980s, I have to confess I started to wonder…I mean, how does one deal with the recent past in novels? How to you write about an era that hasn’t quite passed into ‘history’ and which, with all its quirks, is very much open to scrutiny. 

Just watching an episode of the show The Americans makes me appreciate just how ‘foreign’ some of the 1980s can seem…but it also makes me worry about dealing with the ‘recent past’. I have to wonder, what is the best approach to writing about an era that seems ‘so near and yet so far’?  One thing is for sure, you have to be absolutely sure about all your references as too many people are ready to catch your errors. But what about the other pitfalls? Are the 1980s ready to be used as a backdrop for a novel, or is the era caught between the past and present and best avoided? 

So what do you think?
Is a novel set in the 1980s ‘historical’?

There’s Nothing like the First Time: Getting Published

My critique group hit a double this week. Two members of the writing group announced that their short stories have been accepted for publication in an anthology. 

You could feel the pride in their emailed announcements. Both of these writers had been struggling over the months and years to refine their writing; they honed their craft, bringing in pages week after week with revisions. Finally they got the payoff: officially dropping the “pre” from “pre-published.”

The rest of us in the critique group are thrilled for them. That’s the way it is with writers. The rise of one doesn’t diminish the others–we simply spread the joy. 

So readers, let’s hear about your recent triumphs and struggles. Where are you in your own writing journey? And if you have any announcements, we hope to hear it here first!

Omit Needless Words!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s with a wee bit of wistfulness that I write this blog post, as not only have we bid ‘au revoir’ to two of our blog mates, John Gilstrap and John Ramsey Miller, but also because I have realized just how many blogs have now gone off-line having, perhaps, run out of steam or time or words of wisdom. It’s hard thinking up topics week-after-week and deep down, I fear, I repeat myself a lot:) 

However, there are always new topics that catch my attention (like just how Fifty Shades of Grey has managed to become a huge bestseller…)  and old topics that never seem to be resolved. One of these is the question of just what makes bad writing, well…bad. I was prompted to ponder this issue anew by an article in the ‘Dear Book Lover’ column of  the Wall Street Journal last month (which my husband forwarded to me, hopefully, not because he thinks my own writing is bad!).  

As this column points out, bad writing is impossible to define because of the inherent subjectiveness involved in determining what constitutes ‘bad writing’. It goes on, however, to point out that bad writing almost always involves overwriting and here is where I have a confession to make – I am an overwriter. There I’ve said it. When I was younger almost all my material was packed to the brim with overripe metaphors and obscure concepts. In the words of Roger H. Garrison (“How a Writer Works”) it was flowing with the “tides of phony, posturing, pretentious, tired, imprecise slovenly language, which both suffocate and corrupt the mind.” Mea culpa, indeed…

So what did I do to change this tide? I took Strunk and White’s advice to heart  and I learned to “omit needless words.” Sadly, I still overwrite on occasion, but at least now I (usually) pick it up in the editing and revision process. It also helps me to follow another terrific mantra to “keep it simple, stupid.” Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my comment to Jim’s post yesterday, I still find it hard to do the same when it comes to concepts or plots, but I am learning (I hope!).

So how do you define ‘bad writing’? Are, you like, a closet over-writer or are you blessed by the goddess of brevity? Do you find that your tolerance for sloppy prose has diminished over the years? Perhaps this has helped my own writing. Gone are the days of buying into the high-faluting drivel  of many so-called literary novels. Nowadays, I want to read something that distills rather than over-kills a complex concept. What about you? Will you keep reading even if the actual writing is (dare we say it) ‘bad’?

A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

By Jordan Dane

I had the pleasure of working with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis (The Edit Ninja) on my short story anthology – Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes – and hope to send her more full-length novels. She came recommended from another thriller author – Brett Battles – so I owe him a beer. She is guest posting her thoughts on the patterns of authors. Enjoy!

This is Elyse laughing at my anthology…I’m sure.

Patterns in Writing
When Jordan approached me about a guest post, I decided to write about the patterns I’ve noticed in my clients’—and other authors’—work. These aren’t errors, but habitual things writers do that make their writing predictable. Most of my clients are surprised when I point them out, so it’s become clear these things happen unconsciously.

I’m not talking about a signature. One of Elmore Leonard’s signatures, for example, is his hip dialogue, with specific rhythms you can almost hear while reading. But the dialogue isn’t repetitive. I’d like to discuss things that show up repeatedly, and could potentially distract readers.

Here are some of the most common patterns I’ve seen, in everything from manuscripts by first-time authors, to finished novels by Pulitzer-nominated writers.

Reusing the same atypical word.

I was a beta reader for a friend and noticed he described many things in his novel as “dank”—basement, room, weather, smell, even mood. I suggested he substitute a few synonyms. He did a search and said, “I found only thirteen mentions in the whole ms. That’s not a lot!” I asked, “But how close were they together?” He admitted that in one instance, the word showed up twice in three pages. Astute readers would notice that.

A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?”

We all have words we overuse. One of mine is “just,” e.g., “I just saw that recently, and thought it was just a mole.” Be aware of your favorite words, do a search for them after you’re done writing, and replace if necessary.

Using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters.

In this one book I read, whenever the women were nervous, they bit their lower lips, and when the men experienced stress, they ran their hands through their hair. I started counting the number of times this happened, and could see it coming if characters started feeling stressed or anxious. I got so caught up in the counting, I lost track of what was going on in the plot.

A related pattern would be using the same descriptions as shortcuts for different types of characters. I edited an ms in which every good guy had chiseled features, every tough guy had a crew cut, and every bad guy had horrible teeth. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a good guy had a facial scar, a tough guy wore glasses, and a bad guy looked like George Clooney? Not falling back on easy clichés to denote stereotypes increases the chances of fully dimensional characters being born.

Repeating the same sentence structure.

Many writers fall into a rhythm as they write, which sometimes results in the same kind of sentence over and over: always starting or ending with a participial phrase, starting or ending a line of dialogue with a direct address, too much passive voice, multiple run-ons in the same paragraph, three short sentences in a row. (“He looks. He listens. He waits.”) All those stylistic choices are fine, but when one occurs too often, the writing becomes routine. Mix up the kinds and lengths of sentences, use them in different order, keep readers on their toes.

Different characters speaking the same way.

Sometimes writers get tied to one kind of speech pattern. I recently read a book by a well-known author in which many characters would eliminate the first words in questions: “That him?” “Help you?” “Hell you talking about?” It’s fine if one character talks like that, but I think a little old lady might say, “Is that him?”

Being attached to a favorite letter, name, number, or color.

In a novel I edited, there were characters named Linda, Lita, Lynn, Lila, Laura, Leslie, Lori (they were not related). I have a good guess as to what letter might be on the author’s monogrammed towels. In another ms, several of the names rhymed: Boris, Norris, Morris, Doris, Dolores. The thriller read like poetry.

Make a character list to see if too many names contain the same letters, or if some of your minor characters are named the same. I worked on a book in which a couple of “under fives” (a movie term for characters with under five lines) were named John, because they were less important to the author and he failed to see he’d used the same name for both.

I read a thriller by an author whose favorite color was seemingly red, because two in three characters were redheads, and different characters drove red cars, had on red dresses, and owned houses with red doors. Another time, an author was stuck on the number 9. There was a countdown to a momentous event, and every chapter had a time designation that ended in 9—3:19, 2:29, 6:39, 12:49, etc. These patterns weren’t part of a theme, merely coincidences that became distracting. Sometimes people wear beige, and things happen at 5:42.

Overuse of italics for emphasis.

This one book I read averaged one italicized sentence for every two paragraphs. So many things were important. The italics soon became mundane, which defeated their purpose.

There are other patterns I can discuss, but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you to Jordan for asking me to be here, and all of you for indulging me.

What patterns have you noticed in your reading…or your writing?

Elyse’s Website:

Twitter: @EditNinja (official), @popculturenerd (where Elyse is more active) 


by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

On Friday, John provided a great blog post responding to specific questions regarding the agent/publication process. One of these questions considered the issue of deadlines – something I want to expand upon today. Deadlines, both those imposed by editors/publishers and those self-imposed, are (I think) one of the defining elements of being a professional (as opposed to hobby) writer. As we certainly can’t rely on like so many college students do nowadays.

Deadlines make you both accountable and responsible. But what does that really mean when you aren’t as yet published? It means you know that in order to achieve your larger goal (writing the novel, getting it published etc.) you need to divide the task into manageable chunks and (here is where it gets tricky) you need to meet the deadlines you impose upon yourself. Otherwise you’re just like the billions of amateur writers whining about how ‘one day’ they will write a book but (insert excuse here…) they never seem to get around to it. In today’s post I want to deal with both publisher as well as personal deadlines.

Publisher Imposed Deadlines:

As John said in his blog post on Friday, these deadlines are pretty much inviolable. If, as the author, you miss these then there is a cascading effect on the whole publication cycle. Worse case scenario the publisher views it as a breach of contract and pulls out of the deal. Best case scenario you inconvenience a whole lot of other people. So if you do need to extend, you’d better have a pretty good excuse. 

My rather strict view of deadlines also extends to how you fulfil them. I’ve heard of an author who views the submission date with her publisher with a bit of a shrug – sure, she gets them the manuscript, but she’s not too concerned about making it perfect as she knows the editor will get back to her with comments, so she views the deadline as a necessary evil and continues to work through the book even while waiting for the editor to peruse and comment upon it. I differ on this in that I go into each deal with the belief that, whatever I submit has to be as damn-near-perfect as it possible. To me this is how professionals fulfil their obligations – not with a half-hearted shrug but with a commitment to demonstrating their craft to the highest degree possible.

Of course when it comes to an authors first book, the initial draft manuscript is what was acquired but any amendments to this (based on editorial feedback) should be treated with the same level of professionalism and adherence to deadlines. If an editor doesn’t provide a deadline (which would be highly unusual) then I would request or set one – that way the author remains on track and accountable to a timetable.

So what do you do if you have to seek a deadline extension?

This is where a good agent can act on an author’s behalf to mitigate against this – but the author must still have a genuine excuse for seeking an extension given the potential impact it has on the publisher. When it comes to agents, I would also recommend setting deadlines (for the agent as well as yourself) to ensure there remains a level of responsiveness and accountability that demonstrates an author’s professionalism.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

As a professional writer I like to set myself specific goals for my WIP to keep me on track. Typically I lay out a timetable to complete certain chapters or parts of the books to ensure I don’t face the overwhelming panic of producing a novel. When the tasks ahead are in manageable chunks the path seems far less onerous (or scary). The first thing I do is also set the date I want to get the draft manuscript to my agent and then work backwards from there. 

Sometimes I give my agent an initial deadline for the first 5-10 chapters and the proposed plot outline so I can get his read/feedback on the project ahead. Then I always tell him the date I propose getting the complete manuscript to him – it helps establish my own timetable as well as alerting him to my goal (and, I hope, demonstrate I am tackling it in a serious, professional manner). 

As a terrible procrastinator, self-imposed deadlines are vital to keeping me on track as a professional writer.

So what about you? 
Do you set your own deadlines? Do you meet them? 
Have you ever had to negotiate for a deadline extension from your publisher and if so, how did it go?

It was a dark and stormy metaphor…

by Michelle Gagnon

So I was inspired this week by the recent Bulwer-Lytton prize for bad writing, which went to the brutally mangled metaphor, “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

Wow. Tough to beat. But here’s my challenge: let’s try. American academic Sue Fondrie’s disturbing description of thoughts like mutilated sparrows has been declared the worst sentence of the year.
I think we can top it. This was the shortest sentence to ever win the prize, so extra points will be conferred for brevity.

I’ve certainly had some humdingers in my day, most of which were thankfully edited out of the finished product. But imagine what would transpire if you really let loose?

Some other examples, presented for your enjoyment:

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the center.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

And here’s my submission:

“He wept, and the tears fell like a thousand tiny lemmings leaping from the precipice into a black void.”

Do you have a truly awful metaphor lurking in the depths of your cranial cavity like a really bad thing hiding in a very dark place, yearning for the light of day? Have at it…similes are also welcome.

Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

Meg Gardiner

TKZ is thrilled to welcome Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner, whose latest thriller The Nightmare Thief was just released today!

Some writers love first drafts. To them, starting a novel feels like hitting the highway for a summer road trip. They toss the map out the window, crank up the tunes, let their characters take the wheel, and sit back to see where the story goes. To them a first draft means freedom: blue skies, unlimited potential.

I’m not one of those writers.

I love the part before the first draft. Brainstorming is terrific. Brainstorming means flinging ideas at the wall like spaghetti, to see what sticks. And when an idea gets under my skin—stings like a hornet, itches, keeps me up nights—I know I’m on track. I have the fuel that will drive a thriller.

That’s how I felt with The Nightmare Thief. An “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college
kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. That idea did it. Yep, brainstorming, and then sketching a synopsis—Jo and the kids are trapped, bad people are closing in on them, and my other series heroine, Evan Delaney, has only hours to find them—that’s fun.

But then I have to actually write the thing. And for me, writing a first draft is like pulling my own teeth with pliers: slow, painful, and messy.

The plot takes form, and it’s fat. The characters sit around a lot, thinking. When they do speak, the dialogue needs spice. Worse, everybody on the page sounds exactly the same and, worst of all, exactly like me. And all those plot twists that were so exciting to sketch (“Evan discovers a deadly betrayal”) stare back at me from the synopsis, going: Well, how?

I cringe. I couldn’t show this stinking mess to my dog, much less my editor, and oh, sweet Lord, I still have three hundred pages to write.

And I need to write them at a rate of 2,000 words a day, because I have a deadline.

That’s when I remind myself:

  1. My critique group has a rule for reading out loud: We all think our rough drafts are crap. It’s stipulated. So don’t waste time quailing that your piece sucks. Just read. Well, the same goes for actually drafting the crap. Just write.
  2. My job does not involve cleaning a deep fryer. I should stop being an ungrateful moaner. Just write.
  3. If I spew all these wondrously awful first-draft words onto the page, they will at least exist. And words that exist can be fixed. Words in my head cannot. Just write.

So I keep going, for months, until I reach the end. Then I run through the house with my fists overhead like Rocky, while the stereo blasts the Foo Fighters’ DOA. “I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest…”

In the five-stage writing cycle (excitement, delusions of grandeur, panic, compulsive eating, delivery) this is known as the False Ending. Because now it’s time to rewrite.


I can hear some of you shouting, Rewrite? Don’t make me. Stab me with a fondue fork instead. Repeatedly. Please. B
ut I mean it: Joy. As I recently heard Ken Follett explain, revising means making a book better—and who wouldn’t want the chance to make something better?

And, to be serious, I have a method. Tackle the big issues first.

This is a technique I picked up from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and it has turned my editing inside out. It’s saved me months of wasted work. Stein calls it triage: Fix the life-and-death issues in a manuscript first.
  • Is the conflict stark enough?

  • Is the protagonist strong enough?

  • Does he or she face a worthy antagonist?

In other words, when rewriting, don’t simply start at page one and go through the manuscript fixing every problem as you spot it. It’s counterproductive to spend a morning fussing over sentence structure if the entire scene needs to be cut.

So I identify all the triage issues and outline a plan to address them. Then I return to my miserable first draft. I attack those fat, introspective scenes. I build in unexpected twists. I obstruct the protagonist’s path. Throw down impediments that are by turns physical and psychological, accidental and deliberate. Breakdowns. A monkeywrench. A landslide—literal or emotional. I cut endless swaths of verbiage, like so much kudzu. It’s gratifying.

Admittedly, revision isn’t all fun. I’ll wake up worrying that I’ve done insufficient research. Maybe some howlers have slipped through. (Anybody seen Lord of War? An Interpol agent strafes Nicolas Cage from a fighter jet. That kind of howler.) So I hit the reference books, and contact some experts, and revise again. And I have a fail-safe plan: write a rip-roaring story, so that if all else fails readers will miss any mistakes. Put the pedal down and nobody can see the errors as they blast through the novel.

Meanwhile the deadline continues to loom. Eventually I reach the stage known as Revise! Or! Die! It comes down to a cage fight between me and my story. With major revisions on The Nightmare Thief, I’m happy to say I won—which is to say, the story won. The lumpen first draft was flick-knifed into a sharp revision. Or sledgehammered, where necessary.

When I finished, I sent it to my editor and pitched face down on my desk. Then I sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box, thinking of all the changes I still wanted to make. Then I pitched forward on my desk again.

Eventually I sat up, picked off all the paperclips that had stuck to my face, and staggered to bed, where visions of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney danced in my head. Well, they didn’t dance—they opened a couple of beers, clinked bottles, and put their feet up, waiting to see what I would do to them next.

I love this job.

Meg Gardiner was born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Stanford University and Stanford law school. She practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She lives with her family near London. The Nightmare Thief is her ninth novel.