Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Truth Is Out There

My current writing project is editing HEAVENLY MOVES, my set-in-1982 rock'n'roll murder mystery. This was the first novel I ever started - a long, LONG time ago - and the second novel I ever finished. Well, finished the first draft, at least, which turned out to be a behemoth (for me) at 116K words.

I love this book, I believe in this book and I know there's a great story buried in there amongst all the verbiage and fat. As I go through it, word by page by chapter, I'm reminded of two of the best bits of writing advice I've gotten so far.

The first has to do with editing. The question is: once you've finished the first draft and you're editing the manuscript, how many times should you go through the entire work to make sure it's the best it can be? And the answer/advice is: go through it again and again AND AGAIN, until you CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE!!! - then go through it one more time.

I'm not quite at the CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE stage with HEAVENLY MOVES - but it's not far away! (this is a good thing when you're a writer, believe it or not)

The second piece of advice has to do with telling the story. Like many novelists (all, I suspect), there is an autobiographical element in my tales. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In HEAVENLY MOVES, my protagonist (whose name is Heavenly, by the way) works as a clerk at the county public defender's office. This is a job I once held in my 20s and for an aspiring author, it was an absolute gold mine of crazy characters on both sides of the law, melodrama, crime, punishment, office politics, and human nature at its best and worst. It was also a really good job for me at the time - thanks again, Anonymous County & Wonderful Coworkers!

Looking back, it may have been that time in my life when my desire to write a novel crystallized. I knew I wanted to, I thought I could do it, but I just didn't know what to write. Yet. But I was paying attention to the world around me and slowly collecting ingredients for a mystery. A few years later, I found myself living in a dilapidated apartment two blocks from the beach in Los Angeles. Like all new tenants, I kept getting mail for the previous tenant. Really cool mail. Way cooler than my own. I started to wonder about this stranger who had lived in my apartment... And BAM, I finally had my plot. HEAVENLY MOVES was born.

Which brings me back to that second piece of advice, which is: Just Because It Happened Doesn't Mean It Belongs In The Story. In other words, if you're writing fiction which is all or partially based on a true event, it's FICTION, not just a recounting of what actually happened. In true life, you go to the grocery store, you pump gas, you take a shower, you do a lot of really boring stuff. But fiction is lean, mean and efficient. Everything has a purpose and that purpose is to move the story along. Sure, there's room for flavor and color and the occasional wry observation - but even that stuff must have a purpose.

Which is too bad, because I've got a lot of great stories from those public defender years! Whether they'll make the final cut for HEAVENLY MOVES remains to be seen. Like this one time, this woman was yelling at me and insisting she had to see an attorney NOW, and I (uncharacteristically) lost my temper, yelled back and basically told her to shut up, sit down and we would deal with her after we'd helped the other folks who were ahead of her in line. We were separated only by a narrow wooden counter and, for a moment, I thought she was going to come across it at me. However, she (uncharacteristically) simmered down and took a seat. I then turned over her paperwork to find she was there because she'd tried to murder her common law husband. With a claw hammer. Yikes! I never yelled at another customer on that job.

So, there's a true story, an entertaining story, something that really happened - but does it belong in the book? Will it survive the editing process? Only if it serves a purpose.

And thus the moral of today's blog post is threefold: Keep editing until you can't stand it! Just because it's the truth doesn't necessarily mean it belongs in the story! The customer with a claw hammer is always right!

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