Writing and Editing

My Eight Step Revision Process

This week I completed the first draft of my new novel (working title To Hemlock Run), the culmination of a bout nine months of daily effort. (Thank you, thank you). It currently stands at about 113,500 words and is basically a good effort, but still has some problems. I would imagine nearly all first drafts do. That’s why they’re called “first” drafts. They are nowhere close to being a finished novel.

Many more drafts will come before the novel is ready for publication.

So, several people (none of whom are writers) have asked when they will be able to read it. I tell them not for a while. The first draft is an important step in writing a novel, but only one step in the writing process. An important one, no doubt, because without it none of the other phases will be possible, but still just one step.

I thought I would devote this week’s post to all the steps I go through in the process of writing a novel. (I imagine the process would be similar were I to be writing a nonfiction book, or collection of stories or poetry).

Step one is to write the first or rough draft.

This is complete. Naturally, I try to write as accomplished a manuscript as I can, but I will not let an oversight stop my progress in the draft either. Some things I realize I mishandled on the first attempt, others I have decided looking back in hindsight, and I assume I will find a few issues I haven’t thought of yet. It is part of the process.

But the draft is finished, so I move on to step two.

Take a break.

I put the manuscript away, close the file and—regardless of how much I’m tempted—refuse to let myself look at it for at least a week. Two weeks is better, but I maintain a minimum of a week’s break between drafts.

Why? Because the creative mind needs a break to replenish the well. Just like anything else, constant stress will gradually result in lower and lower productivity. It’s why people like to take weekends off from their day job, and even a couple of weeks’ vacation. It’s a time to replenish the well. And for someone like myself, who tends to work every day when I’m in the middle of a project, it is important to take that break.

Taking as much time off also helps me return to the draft with a fresh eye. Often the biggest problem we authors face when we go to revise a work is that we see what we’re trying to say, not what we actually said. Staying away from the draft for as long as possible, helps keep your judgment objective.

Step Three: Revising the big things.

This is the step where I got through the work and attempt to fix the larger, structural problems. I look for plot holes, subplots that seem to go nowhere, and incomplete characterizations. In this stage, I also pay much greater attention to the structural markers, such as the three pinch points—plot point one, the mid-point, and plot point two—and make any adjustments necessary. I may add new scenes, or delete scenes, depending on what the story needs.

When I finish with revision the big things, I move to:

Another Break.

I close the file and keep it closed for another week or two, for exactly the same reason I did the first time, to recharge the well.

Step Four: Revising the little things (and any big ones left).

This time, as I go through the manuscript I’m looking for internal consistency, what I call the little things.

If I described a house as made of red brick in chapter one, then of yellow vinyl siding in chapter seventeen, I’ve got a problem. This goes for descriptions of scenery, locations and characters. The goal is logic and consistency. Sometimes, in the heat of writing something I simply forget what I said before and have to correct it. I might have the characters blocking the sun from their eyes as they talk in a certain location one morning, then, several hundred pages later, the plot calls for them to be in the same location at the same time, but in shade. Either the plot needs to change, or the description.

Another break.

For the same reasons and for the same amount of time.

Step Five: Characterizations.

In this run through the manuscript, I concentrate on making sure the characterizations are exactly as I want them to be. (Actually, they will never be exactly what I want, but I need to get as close as my abilities will allow). In To Hemlock Run, for instance, I already know that I’m unhappy with one major character’s depiction. I think she should be more badly effected by some of the events, perhaps even losing her temper a time or two. My gut tells me that, as it’s written now, it doesn’t ring true. She’s too even keeled.

Of course, I will fix any other large and small things I might find, but these will not be my primary focus.

When I’m finished with this step:

Yet another break.

Step Six: Re-writing.

In this step, all the basics of the plot, structure and characterization should be about as fixed as I’m going to get them, so now I concentrate on the actual words and sentences, the prose. I try to create the most beautiful, poetic, prose I can. I create and use similes and metaphors whenever possible. I do my best.

In this step I also try to correct any spelling and grammar issues my prose may have. (Which is usually a thing, because grammar is not my strongest suit, particularly some of the more obscure rules).

Then, again:

Break.

Step Seven: editing.

Step seven is where I turn to outside help. I have several beta readers, whose opinions I trust. Each of them gets to read the manuscript and offer any thoughts or suggestions they may have. When those are incorporated or not (just because someone doesn’t care for a certain part or aspect of the story doesn’t necessarily mean I will change it. It just means I will consider changing it). I will then send the manuscript off to a professional editor.

Break.

There is a break here, but primarily because I’m waiting for people to read it and get back to me. Until they do, there’s nothing I can do.

Step Eight: consolidating.

This is the final step. I take all the suggestions from my beta readers and my editor and go through the manuscript and decide individually whether each instance needs to be changed and, if so, how to change it. Sometimes there is a lot that needs to be redone. Sometimes there isn’t. (My goal is always to send her a manuscript with nothing for her to do. She says it’s impossible.)

Once these decisions have been made and the necessary changes made, the manuscript is as good as I can make it, at this time with my current skill set. It is ready to be shown to the public.

Simple math will show that this process takes about a minimum of six months, depending on how long each step takes. But that is just a guideline. Each step takes as long as it takes, as do the breaks.

So when will you be able to read To Hemlock Run? My guess would be at least six months from now. Until then, it isn’t worth reading.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Difference Between Revision and Editing

For many people, saying that they are revising their work means anything and everything they do to bring their writing from the rawness of a first draft to the polished efficiency of the finished product. For years, I thought the same thing. I took a first draft of a story or novel and went through it and through it, reading it over and over, correcting this and changing that until I finally had a piece that, if not perfect, was at least as good as I could make it. What’s wrong with that, you ask? It’s how many writers perfect their work.

Well, there’s nothing exactly wrong with it. Like I said, I’ve spent most of my writing life working that way. The primary drawback to that method is that it isn’t terribly efficient. And the problem with inefficiency is that much time gets wasted because you end up doing work you didn’t need to do at all, or you end up doing the same thing twice while completely missing something else that needed your attention.

Part of being a professional writer (whether we get paid or not is immaterial. In my mind, professionalism is an attitude.) is the ability to work as hard and efficiently as possible. This includes revising our work.

So how do we streamline the act of revision? How do we increase the efficiency of our work as we struggle to turn rough drafts into final, polished products?

By realizing that revision and editing are not the same thing. They describe two very different processes that address different potential problems with our written work. By concentrating on each in its turn, we can quickly and efficiently correct the flaws that may exist in our rough drafts without the risk of wasting time or missing anything crucial.

The difference between revision and editing.

REVISION.

The revision process is about making “big picture” changes; macro, if you will. You may need to remove whole sections, completely re-write others, still others may need to be moved from one part of the narrative to another. It is this type of “big” changes that revision is designed to take care of.

A simple approach to revision is the A3R system. (Adding, Rearranging, Removing, Replacing).

Adding.

What else does the reader need to know? If you haven’t met the required word count, what can you expand on?

Rearranging.

Sometimes, scene x you wrote toward the end of the story would actually work better in the middle where the action drags. Or vice versa.

Removing.

Possibly you’ve gone over the requested word count, or maybe the anecdote about your character’s Uncle really doesn’t add anything to the story. Sometimes you need to bite the bullet and just delete it.

Replacing.

Sometimes, your original idea for a particular scene isn’t as strong as you’d like. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. Maybe the ending disappointed your test readers. In all of these cases you just have to come up with something else. It happens.

EDITING.

Editing is the “small picture” to revision’s “big,” the “micro” to revision’s “macro.” Editing is the process of making sure you have the perfect words and sentences for your purpose. It should only be done after the “big” changes of revision are finished. There is no point (and it is incredibly inefficient) to agonizing over the choice of verb in a particular sentence if you’re going to end up cutting the entire scene from the work.

Editing involves going through the piece line by line and making sure each sentence, each phrase and word is as strong as possible.

Here are some things you might check for as you go through your piece:

Have you used the same word, phrase, or description too many times?

In the novel I’m currently working on, I found the verb “nodded” some 350 times in just over 200 pages. (Thank you “find and replace.”) In another place, I used “body” four times in one paragraph. In both cases, it meant being creative and finding a different way of saying what I meant.

Are any of your sentences hard to understand? Awkward?

Reading the work aloud is the easiest way to find these. If they sound awkward or senseless, they probably don’t read well either. Read what you wrote, not what you meant to say.

Which words could you cut to make a sentence stronger?

Just, quite, very, really, and generally, are often meaningless and merely filling space. See if the sentence is stronger without them. The same goes for all adverbs and adjectives.

Are your sentences grammatically correct?

Is everything spelled correctly?

Have you used punctuation marks correctly?

Have you avoided the passive voice?

These are just some suggestions. There are always more.

I think that this system will help streamline the revision process for everyone and help you create clean, polished works faster and with more efficiency than ever before.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Ten Tips For Revising Your Fiction

Today’s post is another inspired by a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference I attended last weekend. I cannot express strongly enough how much a writers conference offers, not just in learning new skills and techniques, but in general inspiration. There is no better way to re-charge your creative batteries. But I digress.

Many people have asked me over the years (and I have have asked as many others) just how does one go about revising a work of fiction? What problems do you look for? Are there any tricks to make it easier? The zen answer to that is simple: imagine the finished story and delete everything that doesn’t belong. However, very few of us are zen masters. The rest could make use of some more specific ideas: things to look for, stuff to avoid.

So, with the help of a friendly professional editor: ten tips for effective revision.

1. Read poetry before editing.

It will inspire you to be lyrical, musical, poetic, and original.

2. Find the beginning of the story.

Be a detective. Identify when the action actually begins. Consider cutting everything before then.

3. Experience it, don’t explain it.

Be vivid, be aware, be able to experiment.

4. Be cautious with backstory.

Be in the present story. Find the order and organization, discard the rest.

5. Delete extra descriptors.

Be efficient. Weigh each word and phrase.

6. Remove unnecessary dialogue.

Be concise. Every word needs to advance the story.

7. Vary sentence structure.

Be different. Break patterns. Surprise us.

8. Blast away the cliché.

Be fresh. Take a risk. Be new and original.

9. Have fresh eyes read the story.

Choose a good, honest reader, not a praiseful one.

10. Hide the story from yourself for a while and then read it out loud.

It will tell you what you have actually written, versus what you intended to write.

Coming next week. The Hero’s Journey as revealed in Star Wars.

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Writing and Editing

10 Surefire Ways to Get Rejected by a Fiction Editor

Greetings all. My apologies to all who were expecting my usual Saturday post. My excuse is that I was fully immersed in the South Coast Writers Conference and never had the time to write a post. Not even a post about not having time to write a post.

However, as always, the Conference experience has left me both re-enthused about writing and mentally exhausted. Interesting how both can happen at the same time, isn’t it? I also have received an infusion of new material for the blog and my personal writing career. I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

Without further ado, the top ten ways to get rejected by a fiction editor:

1. Be predictable

If the editor can tell you exactly how your work is going to end after reading one page, she’s not going to publish it.

2. Treat a common theme without an original take.

Editors see a LOT of stories about cheating spouses, alcoholism/drug addiction, death, loss of a child, etc. If you’re writing about any of these subjects, be earth-shatteringly original or be rejected.

3. Use cliches.

Cliches are cliches because they are over-used. Their appearance in your fiction screams lazy writing and amateurism almost as much as–

4. The manuscript is not edited.

Nothing tells an editor that you are an amateur (or that you really don’t care about your writing) as much as submitting a manuscript full of misspellings, grammatical errors and typos. They’re editors; they care about such things. You should too.

5. The work is overwritten.

Everything in your work should be lean and utilitarian. If a sentence is six words long, but you can efficiently say the same thing in four words, make it so. The same goes for descriptive paragraphs. Don’t use three paragraphs to describe the character’s house if you can do it in one.

6. The story actually starts on page 4.

Also part of the editing process (or should be). It can be useful to write backstory to build up momentum going into the actual action, but this should be edited out of the final product.

7. The dialogue is not realistic or is bogged down in meaninglessness.

Real people don’t normally speak in long, complicated, or complete sentences. Nor do they normally give speeches lasting more than a sentence or two long. It should scan (sound) similar to real speech. In the other direction, avoid “Yeah,” “Well,” “I see,” “Uh-huh,” and similar types of statements in dialogue. If a character is just agreeing with someone, summarize in exposition and move on.

8. The characters don’t do anything.

There has to be a purpose to the work. Why was this written? What’s the point? (Clever or amusing dialogue by itself is not enough.)

9. “Beautiful,” “wonderful,” “colorful,” “vivid,” “inspiring,” and most of all, multiple globs of adjectives.

Virtually cliché. As in they don’t really have much meaning anymore. Push the edges. Be creative. Use all and any adjectives sparingly, if at all.

10. Narrator not believable, inauthentic.

For instance, if we write a story as a 17th Century Caribbean pirate, but don’t do enough research, odds are the voice will still be that of a 21st Century insurance adjustor. (Or whatever you happen to do.)

(Many thanks to Stefanie Freele, from whom I borrowed this).

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writing, Writing and Editing

Revision: Before and After

Recently I posted about having to re-work my current novel because I’d previously overlooked the rule, Chekhov’s Gun. Well, I’ve finished now and thought I’d share some of the results with you. Below, you will find the final scene of Chapter 4 as it stood before the revision, followed by the same scene post-revision.

Tell me what you think.

BEFORE

His dad’s house, the house where Jason and his brother had grown up, was a ’30s era Victorian farmhouse in a neighborhood of similar houses on the lower slopes of Beacon Hill at the west end of town. Back in the boom days the homes had been built by the prospering ship’s officers, cannery managers, and merchants who called Port Salish home. By the time Jason was born the boom in Port Salish was long over, the neighborhood was no longer upscale, and many of the houses were beginning to lose their battle with time and the elements. But they’d still been captivating, especially to a young boy with imagination.

Now, as Jason steered his car sedately down Salmon Berry Lane, he noticed that Port Salish’s reincarnation as a retirement and tourist community had been good to the neighborhood. Many of the stately old houses had been restored to their former glory and he counted two that appeared to be in the middle of major work. The shrill of power saws filled the air.

He didn’t see any sign of children around any of the houses he passed. They’d still be in school, of course, but their bikes, balls and other toys shouldn’t be.

Even the house on the south side of his dad’s had a dumpster parked in the drive.

Jason pulled into the drive that sloped up the left side of his father’s house, beside the dumpster
in the neighbor’s. None of the houses in this neighborhood had been built with garages. In the thirties, few people in rural Washington owned cars, so why build a garage? Later, when cars and trucks became more popular, some had converted old carriage houses at the back of the properties into garages. Others had built simpler carports as shelter from the rain.

He parked behind his dad’s Ford pickup, removed his briefcase and laptop from the car and climbed the half dozen steps to the front porch. Jason still half expected the front door to open and his dad emerge to greet him. To welcome him home. He didn’t, of course. No one did. No one was there.

Jason took a deep breath and tried the front door. It was locked. His dad never locked the house. When Jason pointed this out on one visit his dad had shrugged. “Port Salish is a small town,” he’d said. “On an island with limited ferry service. Where would they sell the stuff without getting caught? No burglar worth his salt is going to bother with us.”

Now it was locked.

Fortunately, Jason had a key. He unlocked the door and stepped into the living room. It was exactly as he remembered it. His father hadn’t changed the decor since the day his mother died. He’d never seen a need to.

Jason set his briefcase and laptop on a nearby armchair and just stood there for a moment taking in the atmosphere. The place simply oozed his father. There were hints of his mother, of course. Everything from the art on the walls to the patterns on the furniture were his mother’s choice, but her choice of over twenty years ago. It didn’t so much show a woman’s touch as the memory of one. It was now all his dad’s.

It looked like his dad had just stepped out for a beer or to grab something from the market. In the kitchen, breakfast dishes still soaked in the sink; the coffee maker held half a pot of cold coffee. He always took a thermos of coffee on the boat with him. It could get cold out on the Sound. A fishing magazine lay on the dining room table folded open like he’d intended to finish the article later.

Jason found his dad’s answering machine. To his surprise, there were no messages waiting. There should have been a few, he thought. Word, particularly word of a tragedy like this, traveled fast in a small town, but it wasn’t perfect. Somebody would have called, not knowing he was dead. Somebody would have called trying to reach Jason. A telemarketer would have called. Somebody would have called. But no one had.

What did that mean?

He left the kitchen, glanced in the downstairs bathroom, saw nothing of interest, then moved into the den at the back of the house. Or what used to be the den. His father had pretty much turned it into his office years ago. But it had always been “the den” when Jason had been growing up; he just couldn’t bring himself to call it anything else.

His dad had updated the television to a fifty inch flat screen, but the room was dominated now by a desk, a PC, printer/fax combo and a two drawer steel file cabinet. It was his office, study, and living room. And again, it looked like he’d just stepped out for a few minutes. An empty beer bottle and a partial can of peanuts sat next to the keyboard. So did the remote for the TV. The air was colored with the nutty memory of old cigar smoke.

Jason sat down at the desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, he began looking through the desk drawers. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for. Something labeled in bright neon “Clue”? He didn’t know. At some point later on he’d need to sit down and go through all his dad’s files, business and personal, but right now he was just glancing around, orienting himself.

And looking for clues.

He found his father’s checkbook and scanned the register, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Most everything else in the desk drawers were office supplies, copies of the fish and game regulations, and odd correspondence. Nothing of interest.

He turned his attention to the computer. Again, he found nothing that struck him as unusual. He saw all the usual programs, Microsoft Office, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, Photoshop. Nothing attracted his attention. He briefly opened his dad’s accounting program, but found nothing interesting there, either by its presence or by its absence. He then tried Internet Explorer. It successfully opened to his dad’s homepage, Yahoo News, so he had internet access. He open the browser’s history record, but found it empty. Either his dad had set his browser to erase the history after each session, or someone had scrubbed it.

He sighed and leaned back in the chair. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Deep in his gut he knew he was missing something significant, something right in front of him. He just didn’t know what it was. Try as he might, he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. It was like he’d blanked out the name of some familiar movie star.

The answer was to walk away. Quit thinking about it.

He’d no sooner stood up than his cell phone rang. He glanced at the display. It was a local number. The only person in town who knew his cell number was Sgt. Hayden.

He answered it.

“Mr. Reynolds?”

“Call me Jason,” he told her.

She paused. “The Medical Examiner is releasing your father’s remains today. They’ll be arriving on the afternoon ferry. I took the liberty of calling Schroeder and Sons, the local funeral home. They’ll pick up the body at the ferry.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, but you’ll still need to call and set up a meeting to arrange the funeral and burial and everything.”

“Of course.”

“Got a pen and paper?”

He was a reporter. He always had a pen. He pulled a pad of notepaper closer to him on the desk top and told her he was ready. She gave him the name of Lindsey Schroeder and a local number and he scribbled it in an unused corner of the page, just below a scribbled note reading “strawberry fields.”

Odd. He didn’t think his dad had voluntarily listened to a Beatles song his entire life.

“Mr. Reynolds? Jason?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” he said. “Sorry, something distracted me.”

“Anything I should know about?”

He smiled. “Are you a Beatles fan?”

“Excuse me?”

Something else occurred to him. “I do have a question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Did your Department bring my dad’s truck back to the house?”

She hesitated, just for a moment. “As far as I know, it’s exactly how we found it. Why?”

“I was just wondering how he got down to his boat. Someone give him a ride?”

“Maybe. Or he might have walked. It’s a small town. You’re, what, maybe six blocks from the marina?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re probably right. Sometimes I forget how much safer it is here than in Seattle.”

But he was thinking that it had been raining then. Raining pretty hard.

“Speaking of your father’s boat, the Department will release it to you tomorrow morning. Do you know where the Sheriff’s dock is at the port?”

He told her he thought he could find it.

“A deputy will be there between 8:00 and 9:00. You’ll just need to bring some ID and sign a couple of release forms.”

He told her he would be there.

“That’s all I’ve got. Is there anything else you need?” Sgt. Hayden asked.

“No. No, I think that’s it. And thanks.”

“Happy to help,” she told him.

They disconnected.

True to his word, he immediately called the funeral home and set up an appointment with Mr. Schroeder for 3:00, two hours from now. The woman he’d talked to said Mr. Schroeder would explain all the options then. She’d had an extremely soothing telephone voice. Jason briefly wondered whether they’d trained for that soothing tone at mortuary school, or did it come naturally?

He closed his phone and headed upstairs to take a look at the bedrooms. The stairs were right outside the den at the back of the house, next to the back door. They ended at a small landing on the second floor. To get to the attic, you had to pull down a panel in the hallway ceiling to reveal a narrow set of wooden stairs. But he wasn’t going to the attic right now. At the head of the stairs was a short hallway floored with scuffed oak. To the left was his old bedroom, then the bathroom. To the right, on the south side of the house, was Jeremy’s old room, now the official guest room. Directly ahead, and occupying the entire front of the second floor was the master bedroom. His parents’ room. His dad’s room.

The hall was as dark and gloomy as if it were night. The only window was behind him above the stairs and the weak eastern light only penetrated so far. On a cloudy day like today, it didn’t even bother fighting the shadows. His mother had hated the gloom and insisted their bedroom doors remain at least partially open, to let some light in.

His dad hadn’t felt the same way. All the doors were closed.

Jason walked past the two smaller bedrooms and opened the door to his dad’s room.

It felt like violating a trust. Growing up, the only room in the house that was strictly off limits to him and his brother had been his parents’ bedroom. Technically, Jeremy’s room was off limits to him and vice-verse, but that rule was only honored when it was convenient.

He had never gone uninvited into his parents’ room. Ever.

First of all, the bedroom was as neat as a hotel room. The king-sized bed was made, the comforter precisely draped to just miss touching the hardwood floor on all sides. The night stands and dresser surfaces were all clutter-free and gleamed as if they’d just been polished. A throw rug sat on the floor to one side of the bed and a pair of slippers beside it. Even the pair of jeans and work shirt draped over the back of an armchair seemed to be part of the design. There were no dirty socks or underwear on the floor, no half-eaten snacks. A modest stand across from the chair held a small television, a few books.

Was his dad the type of man who made his bed every morning? Jason wasn’t sure. It could have been a habit left from when his mother was alive.

Besides, if his dad hadn’t made the bed, who had?

Did he have a housekeeper, or a neighborhood lady come in to do some cleaning? He didn’t know. It was possible. If so, she would be a great source of information.

He pulled his cell out of its pocket and opened the notepad app to write himself a reminder about the housekeeper. This was exactly how he worked a story, especially in the early stages. Find something, often something very small, that didn’t seem to make sense. Figure out a list of people who could explain it to him. Ask them the question. See if they have an explanation. If they did, did he believe it? Did their explanations lead to further questions?

The Stevenson story had started out with the oddity of one particular construction company winning such a large percentage of supposedly “open bid” contracts. It had seemed strange. So he had asked some questions. The rest, as they say, is history.

He saved his entry and shut the phone down.

Again, he had the annoying feeling that something important was lying there just beyond his grasp. It was taunting him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the musical ding-dong of the doorbell echoing through the empty house. Naturally, he was about as far from the front door as he could be and still be in the house. He left his father’s bedroom, hurried down the hall and took the stairs two at a time, just like when he was a kid. The bell chimed a second time just as he reached the ground floor.

“Coming!” he yelled out, though the odds were no one could hear him.

AFTER

His dad’s house, the house where Jason and his brother had grown up, was a ’30s era Victorian farmhouse in a neighborhood of similar houses on the lower slopes of Beacon Hill at the west end of town. Back in the boom days the homes had been built by the prospering ship’s officers, cannery managers, and merchants who called Port Salish home. By the time Jason was born the boom in Port Salish was long over, the neighborhood was no longer upscale, and many of the houses were beginning to lose their battle with time and the elements. But they’d still been captivating, especially to a young boy with imagination.

Now, as Jason steered his car sedately down Salmon Berry Lane, he noticed that Port Salish’s reincarnation as a retirement and tourist community had been good to the neighborhood. Many of the stately old houses had been restored to their former glory and he counted two that appeared to be in the middle of major work. The shrill of power saws filled the air.

He didn’t see any sign of children around any of the houses he passed. They’d still be in school, of course, but their bikes, balls and other toys shouldn’t be.

Even the house on the south side of his dad’s had a dumpster parked in the drive.

Jason pulled into the drive that sloped up the left side of his father’s house, beside the dumpster in the neighbor’s. None of the houses in this neighborhood had been built with garages. In the thirties, few people in rural Washington owned cars, so why build a garage? Later, when cars and trucks became more popular, some had converted old carriage houses at the back of the properties into garages. Others had built simpler carports as shelter from the rain.

Jason had never seen a vehicle in their carriage house garage. It had always been his dad’s workshop and storage for his fishing gear.

His dad’s pickup wasn’t in its usual spot in the drive. But it wouldn’t be, would it? It would either be still down at the Port, or in a police impound yard.

He parked beside the house, removed his briefcase and laptop from the car and climbed the half dozen steps to the front porch. Jason still half expected the front door to open and his dad emerge to greet him. To welcome him home. He didn’t, of course. No one did. No one was there.

Jason took a deep breath and tried the front door. To his surprise, it was locked. His dad never locked the house. On one visit, when Jason pointed this out, his dad had shrugged. “Port Salish is a small town,” he’d said. “On an island with limited ferry service. No burglar worth his salt is going to bother with us.”

But today it was locked.

Fortunately, Jason had a key. He unlocked the door and stepped into the living room. It was exactly as he remembered it. His father hadn’t changed the decor since the day his mother died. He’d never seen a need to.

Jason set his briefcase and laptop on a nearby armchair and just stood there for a moment taking in the atmosphere. The place simply oozed his father. There were hints of his mother, of course. Everything from the art on the walls to the patterns on the furniture were his mother’s choice, but her choice of over twenty years ago. It didn’t so much show a woman’s touch as the memory of one. It was now all his dad’s.

It was also like a cave. All the window blinds were drawn.

He took a couple of minutes and opened the blinds, letting the living room fill with light.

It looked like his dad had just stepped out for a beer or to grab something from the market. In the kitchen, dishes still soaked in the sink; the coffee maker held half a pot of cold coffee. A fishing magazine lay on the dining room table folded open like he’d intended to finish the article later.

Jason found his dad’s answering machine. To his surprise, there were no messages waiting. There should have been a few, he thought. Word traveled fast in a small town, but it wasn’t perfect. Somebody would have called, not knowing he was dead. Somebody would have called trying to reach Jason. A telemarketer would have called. Somebody would have called.

But no one had.

He left the kitchen, glanced in the downstairs bathroom, saw nothing of interest, then moved into the den at the back of the house. Or what used to be the den. His father had pretty much turned it into his office years ago. But it had always been “the den” when Jason had been growing up; he just couldn’t bring himself to call it anything else.

His dad had updated the television to a fifty inch flat screen, but the room was dominated now by a desk, a PC, printer/fax combo and a two drawer steel file cabinet. It was his office, study, and living room. And again, it looked like he’d just stepped out for a few minutes. An empty beer bottle and a partial can of peanuts sat next to the keyboard. So did the remote for the TV. The air was tinted with the memory of cigar smoke.

Jason sat down at the desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, he began looking through the desk drawers. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for. Something labeled in bright neon “Clue”? He didn’t know. At some point later on he’d need to sit go through all his dad’s files, business and personal, but right now he was just glancing around, orienting himself.

And looking for clues.

He found his father’s checkbook and scanned the register, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Most everything else in the desk drawers were office supplies, copies of the fish and game regulations, and odd correspondence. Nothing of interest.

He turned his attention to the computer. He saw all the usual programs, Microsoft Office, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, Photoshop. Nothing attracted his attention. He briefly opened his dad’s accounting program, but found nothing interesting there, either by its presence or by its absence. He then tried Internet Explorer. It successfully opened to his dad’s homepage, Yahoo News, so he had internet access.

He sighed and leaned back in the chair. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Deep in his gut he knew he was missing something significant, something right in front of him. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was. It was like he’d blanked out the name of some familiar movie star.

The answer was to walk away. Quit thinking about it.

He’d no sooner stood up than his cell phone rang. He glanced at the display. It was a local number. The only person in town who knew his cell number was Sgt. Hayden.

He answered it.

“Mr. Reynolds?”

“Call me Jason,” he told her.

She paused. “The Medical Examiner is releasing your father’s remains today. They’ll be arriving on the afternoon ferry. I took the liberty of calling Schroeder and Sons, the local funeral home. They’ll pick up the body.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, but you’ll still need to call them and set up a meeting to arrange the funeral and burial and everything.”

“Of course.”

“Got a pen and paper?”

He was a reporter. He always had a pen. He pulled a pad of notepaper closer to him on the desk top and told her he was ready. She gave him the name of Lindsey Schroeder and a local number and he scribbled it in an unused corner of the page, just below a scribbled note reading “strawberry fields.”

Odd. He didn’t think his dad had voluntarily listened to a Beatles song his entire life.

“Mr. Reynolds? Jason?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” he said. “Sorry, something distracted me.”

“Anything I should know about?”

He smiled. “Are you a Beatles fan?”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind.”

“The Department will also release your father’s boat to you tomorrow morning. Do you know where the Sheriff’s dock is at the port?”

He told her he thought he could find it.

“A deputy will be there between 8:00 and 9:00. You’ll just need to bring some ID and sign a couple of release forms.”

He told her he would be there.

“That’s all I’ve got. Is there anything else you need?” Sgt. Hayden asked.

“No. No, I think that’s it. And thanks.”

“Happy to help,” she told him.

They disconnected.

True to his word, he immediately called the funeral home and set up an appointment with Mr. Schroeder for 3:00, two hours from now. The woman he’d talked to said Mr. Schroeder would explain all the options then. She’d had an extremely soothing telephone voice. Jason briefly wondered whether they’d trained for that soothing tone at mortuary school, or did it come naturally?

He closed his phone.

Again, he had the annoying feeling that something important was lying there just beyond his grasp. It was taunting him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the musical ding-dong of the doorbell echoing through the empty house.

“Coming!”

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Writing and Editing

Revision: The Layer System

So you’ve finished it, the short story or poem you’ve been sweating over for days. Or maybe you even have about 100,000 words of a novel sitting on your word processor. Congratulations! Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, treat yourself to an ice cream, or something. Enjoy the moment because as soon as you’re done it’s time to get to work.

It’s time to revise your work.

Think of yourself as an auto mechanic who has just built an engine from scratch. It sits there in the engine compartment, all shiny and clean, and hey, when he turns the ignition key it actually starts and runs, he feels pretty good. But the master mechanic is not satisfied with creating an engine that merely runs. He immediately begins making adjustments: the timing, the fuel/air mixture, etc. He is not satisfied until he has coaxed every ounce of horsepower and efficiency from that engine.

Our goal as writers is to make sure our writing is as finely tuned as that mechanic’s engine.

So how do we do it? By revising and editing.

I have spent the last few months doing this very thing to my new novel and thought I’d share with you my technique. I call it revising by layers.

Revising something as large and complex as a novel can be an intimidating task. There are a lot of moving parts: plot, subplots, major characters, minor characters, themes and descriptions. Trying to get each and every one as close to perfect as possible, all at the same time, is almost impossible. That’s why I break it down into smaller parts, each involving a separate pass through the manuscript.

First, I revise for plot, making sure that every twist and turn logically flows out of the previous decisions, no matter how surprising the twists. This also means making sure the time line is accurate. In Deception Island, I decided I had the protagonist back in action too quickly after suffering a gunshot wound, so I wrote a few new scenes to give him a little time to recover. Of course, this meant pushing the time of everything occurring afterwards back a day. Everything that happened on Sunday, now was happening on Monday; Wednesday was now Thursday. It meant changing every day reference from that point to the end of the book.

The second layer I look at is characterization. I go through the entire manuscript and make a character list. Every character that is given a name, whether they have a speaking role, or not, goes on the list, along with a note about their role in the story and any description I may have given them. The purpose of the character list is twofold. First, I have a habit of occasionally changing a character’s name partway through the work. This list corrects that and makes sure Joe is not described as a redhead in chapter two and as a blond in chapter ten. It also avoids having characters with similar names (such as Dan and Don) which could cause reader confusion.

The third layer of revision is what I call (for want of a better term) continuity. This is all about getting the details right. If you describe the hero’s house as having a brick facade in chapter one, you don’t want to describe it as wood in chapter eight. You also don’t want her driving east every day on the way home from work, then later in the story have her marveling at the sunset. Much of what I found is not quite as obvious, but still enough to break the illusion for a reader. I had one character’s office on the ninth floor in one place, then the nineteenth in another. In another spot, I had the hero complaining about cold, wet feet in chapter twenty, but described him packing hiking boots in chapter two. I had to change chapter two so he didn’t have boots to make the later scene make sense.

The fourth layer is where I start getting down to the artist part of writing. In the heat of writing the first draft, I often resort to cliches or other easy methods of writing. Which is perfectly okay. Sometimes I don’t want to slow down the overall creative process in order to think up an original simile for a particular description. That’s what revision is all about, reading the manuscript closely and weeding out overused devices and replacing them with more creative ones. I, personally, find that in a first draft I overuse the verb “nodded” in dialogue. (as in 350 uses in 200 pages) What I do is use it as a place-holder during dialogue. Someone in the situation, doesn’t reply to the other character immediately. There is a brief pause, which I fill by writing “he nodded.” But 350 times? I had to use the “find and replace” function to find them all, then decide whether “nodded” is really what I mean, or replace it with something more creative.

The next layers are all about tightening up the story. If I have used five words to say something and can do it in three, change it. If something doesn’t either advance the plot or add to the depth of character, cut it out. Sometimes entire scenes will need to be taken out. As you read, ask yourself: “will removing this scene, sentence, phrase, or word, prevent the reader from understanding the story?” If your answer is “no,” it probably needs to be cut.

The best tool for revision is distance from the work. The object is to see and judge what you have written, not what you intended to write, or thought you’d wrote. The best way to do this is to take a couple of weeks off between revisions. Read something. Work on another project. Do whatever you can to get your mind off the project, so when you do return to it you do so with an objective and critical mind.

How many layers are there? How many times do we need to go through the manuscript before it’s ready for the publisher? As many as it takes. There is no set answer to that. Every writer is different and every manuscript is different. We revise it until we can’t make it any better.

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