Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wrongful Death - Lessons Learned

This past week, I finished my fourth novel, one with a working title of Wrongful Death.  I won't go into too much detail on the book itself, since I've previously discussed the main thrust of it here and here.  Suffice to say that it's finally done...or at least the first draft is.  Therefore, I thought I'd talk about the lessons I've learned while writing this soon-to-be-recognized literary masterpiece.

1.  Stop trying to edit in midstream.
I've written three novels previously, and I've fully edited two of them.  As I began to write this book, I found I was tripping over myself.  I'd write a sentence, and then I'd start wondering which parts would make it through the editing process.  Was I being too wordy?  Would another phrase work better in this spot?  Even when I would finish for the day, I found myself going back before restarting and trying to edit.  It drove me insane and took a lot of the fun out of writing.

Therefore, I made the conscious decision to not try and self-edit until after everything was done.  Sure, I could write a paragraph and decide that I wanted to re-word it, but I've done that lots of times before and consider it to be a natural part of the process.  No, I'm talking about second guessing yourself as you write.  Instead, I let the words flow freely and accepted that lots of them would have to go or be re-written,  Shit, a decent portion of content would even have to be flushed.  However, that was something I could worry about after the main work was done.  After all, a logger doesn't worry about what the final house will look like - he just cuts down the tree.  The delicate work shaping it into something else is for after the primary glop has been thrown down.

I liken this to tuning out white noise.  If you don't focus yourself onto getting the story out so you can enjoy it, your brain will constantly go back to what you just wrote and say things like, "You know, you used way too many adverbs in that part, so go ahead and go cut them now."  Of course, this disrupts the flow required to let a story run seamlessly from one part to the next.  Editing will come - for now, just enjoy writing the damn thing.

2.  A story will end when it ends.
I had it in my mind that since editing would likely cut out 12,000-15,000 words, I would need to write a story that was at least 80,000 words in length.  The trouble is that the creative process didn't want to cooperate.

Any experienced writer, and even most inexperienced ones, will tell you that they don't really tell the story - they simply follow it where it goes.  I followed Wrongful Death along its natural path.  Every time I tried to give the story "more meat," it felt artificial.  I knew I was stuffing the book with nothing more than filler material in the vain hopes I would get something of decent length.  The results weren't pretty, so I went back, found those parts I used to fatten up the manuscript, and cut them out.  They were boring and made no sense in the context of what I was trying to say.

In the end, Wrongful Death came out to right at 68,000 words.  Once I edit, I expect it to be around 55,000 to 58,000 words, which is about what it should be for the audience it's targeting.  The story came to a natural conclusion and "felt right."  And not trying to put on more just to make it meatier made it a better book.

3.  Don't get too wedded to your working title.

We writers agonize over the title to our book.  We spend hours upon hours trying to find just the right thing that captures the spirit of the book.  Once we find something we love, we're crushed when we discover that it already belongs to someone else.

I was gratified that the title to Wrongful Death came to me so easily.  I basked in my brilliance at coming up with such an easy title, one that no one had yet thought of.  Upon further research, I discovered I was wrong.

So I'll go back to the drawing board.  But the thing is, I know I can come up with the right title.  Wrongful Death sounded so cliché, even though it captured what I wanted it to capture.  However, I'm going to view this as an opportunity to stretch my creative mind and figure out something even better.  It'll be tough, but that's part of the fun.

4.  Try something new.
I did several new things with this novel, but two of them stand out.  First, I'd never written a novel in first person limited before.  Doing so forced me to change my approach to the story.  I couldn't just write things from the main character's point of view - I had to become the main character.  Instead of describing the actions of a person who was bewildered, I had to describe the feeling of bewilderment without saying "I'm bewildered."  Further, to create a good story, I couldn't just write a journal.  Journal books can be okay - Rise by Gareth Wood is decent - but they're limiting in that they give the feel of talking too much in the past tense, thereby removing a lot of suspense, and they have little real interaction between the characters.  I wanted my main guy to have conversations and be startled.  A journal wouldn't allow for that, so figuring it out took time.

Second, changing my perspective changed the audience I was going for.  Wrongful Death is more a YA paranormal, suited for the mid-teen crowd.  Some first year college folks might like it, but I tend to think that once you're able to legally drink, this one might not be for you(I could be wrong - I thought Twilight was just for high school girls, and look where that went).  In describing an 18 year old high school senior, I had to talk and act like him.  That's more than just remembering what those days were like.  For example, my vocabulary is much expanded since my teenage years, so if I talk too much like I do now, the character won't be genuine.  That meant lots of word changes - "I pondered" became "I thought about," and "a surge of emotion washed over me" became "I got pissed."  I had to constantly remind myself that I was talking from the point of view of a not-quite-mature 18 year old, so I needed to sound like one.

5.  Lesson reinforced - write what you like.

I love pizza.  And cheeseburgers.  And chocolate cake.  So, basically any kind of junk food.  Why then would I want to suddenly switch to caviar and bean sprouts?

Write what you enjoy reading.  I'm not a mind reader, so I have little idea what some random guy down the street wants to read, let alone how to write it for him.  I write stories I want to read.  Notice I didn't say I write what I know, because I haven't met a lot of aliens or spirits trying to come back from the other side, but since I enjoy reading these things, I'll write what I'd like these kinds of stories to be about.

It's one thing for changing perspective to modify how you write, but if you try to write to the latest fad or because you think your daughter's middle school class would enjoy something, you'll never be successful.  People can smell a phony a mile off because it comes through in the writing.  It sounds forced.  Therefore, forget about trying to impress some random audience member and focus on what you'd like to see in print.

That's it.  That's my experience from this latest work.  I'd love it if some writers out there shared with us what lessons they learned while writing something recently.


  1. Thanks for the tips! First person limited is an interesting perspective to write from. I too found that it helped me get into/understand the character. Makes unconsciousness a bit tricky though. :p Love your blog! :)

    1. You're welcome. It does indeed help getting into character, although for me the trap is to give the character his own personality as opposed to simply letting him absorb mine. Remembering that the main character isn't me can be hard when you're into the flow.

      Glad you like the blog. I think yours is fantastic!