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 and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: Beta Readers

If you listen to writers talk, or read the acknowledgments pages of their books, you have probably come across the term “beta readers.” I have mentioned them (my own) a time or two on this blog. So, like any use of jargon, some of you inevitably will find yourself wondering just what is a “beta reader” and how does one get one?

First though, a definition. A beta reader is the writer’s test audience. The name is borrowed from the software and game development industry, where beta testers have long been used to try out developing software and games before they are released to the public. Their job is to find overlooked flaws and judge intangibles such as playability and ease-of-use, things the original designers might have missed. Though the designers test and re-test their programs, experience has taught them that sometimes they are too close to a project to judge it impartially. Thus the beta testers. They have objective eyes.

Beta readers perform much the same function in the writing world. We, the authors, write and revise our work until we’ve refined it about as much as we can on our own.

The key phrase here is on our own.

Beyond a certain point (and that point is as impossible to pin down as the definition of art) it is impossible for an author to perfect her own work. We all need an objective set of eyes to see the project’s flaws and point them out (gently) for us.

But, I hear some of you protesting that you already have an editor. That’s her job.

To which I say true, but…the problem is that editors—the good ones anyway and why would we hire bad editors?—are expensive. Most of them charge by the hour and their time is valuable. My goal through four novels has always been to submit a manuscript to my editor with nothing there for her to do. It’s a point of professional pride and it’s way cheaper.

That’s where the efforts of a beta reader are valuable. They work basically for free (though it’s good form to thank them on the acknowledgements page and give them a free, autographed copy of the published work). With some good beta readers, you can eliminate many of the mistakes that make an editor earn his money.

A good set of beta readers also provides you with second (and third, fourth, etc.) opinions on virtually every aspect of the manuscript. In my most recent novel, Deception Island, (shameless self-promotion) I had one beta reader who really did not like the protagonist’s girlfriend and his reactions to her. However, no other reader mentioned a thing about her, so I decided it was just a personality conflict and left it in.

On the other hand, every single reader did not like the way I originally opened the story. I took that as a sign and completely re-worked the first two chapters.

Beta readers give you a chance to see how the audience reacts to what you’re trying to do. For that reason, it’s best to have readers with varying tastes and interests. As much as possible, you’d like your beta readers to be as diverse as your readership will be.

It’s also greatly to your advantage if your beta readers have varying skill sets. One might be a fan of the genre you write in so they’re familiar with the genre’s conventions (and they all have conventions). Another could be familiar with the story’s location. A third, a grammar and usage expert. A fourth, a poet. Each will evaluate your work as a whole, but their particular skills will naturally focus on a different aspect.

So, now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons for using beta readers the question naturally rises: how does one find beta readers? The simple answer is that you ask them to do it. They can be friends, or family, colleagues at work, or members of your critique group (those are the best). There are only two real requirements I look for: they need to be almost as voracious a reader as I am. Someone who does not read fiction, or does not read at all is not qualified to make any judgments about my story. Sorry, but they don’t have the experience. Second, they will have to be confident and secure enough to be completely honest about the work.

If a scene in my new novel sucks, I want someone to tell me. Don’t be afraid of hurting my feelings. Sure, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get over it. If something doesn’t work, I want to know about it so I can fix the problem. My feelings will be hurt much more if a scene that doesn’t work ends up in the published work because no one was willing to tell me it was bad.

Beta readers are as important a tool as any a writer can have. We all know what they can do for us now and how to try and recruit them. All you have to do now is go out and get them.

One other thing to remember though is the benefits of being a beta reader yourself. We can learn just as much by critiquing the work of others as we can by having others critique our work. Besides, it is good to help someone else, even as others help us.

It’s good karma.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: the Placeholder

Often in the writing life, we’ll be cruising along in our story until we come to a place where the dialogue (or description or whatever) just doesn’t ring true at first draft. Suddenly the entire flow of your story comes to a halt and you’re faced with a dilemma: fix the flawed dialogue, but lose all the momentum of your story; or leave the flawed portion and continue with the story, hoping you’ll be able to fix it in re-write, (providing you can remember what, where, and how you originally wanted it).

How many fantastic ideas have been lost over the years because of this? I know I have lost many, mostly because I have a horrible time coming up with names. It doesn’t matter what kind of name I need: a character, a town, a business, even a rock band once. All have caused my creative flow to screech to a halt.

It was a problem.

The solution to this dilemma is so simple I find it amazing I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Just insert a placeholder into the spot in question and move on. A placeholder is something (a symbol of some sort, easy to remember later or to find in a search) marking the place for further attention, along with a brief sketch of what you want in the final product.

I first used placeholders (consciously) in my most recent novel for character names. As I’ve said before, I have an awful time coming up with good names and the story will often languish for days while I try to decide what to call my main character’s best friend. This time, I smartened up. I just typed XX or AA where the name should be and moved on.

It was a wonderfully liberating development. Now I could just move on as fast as the story would come to me without worrying about it. After all, this was just a first draft and the most important goal here was to get the basic story down on paper. The time for anguishing over a character name is during re-write, not while you’re constructing a first draft.

However, the placeholder is not just a tool for managing our character names. It can be used wherever an imperfect part of the story threatens the story as a whole. Dialogue, description, even plot problems can be marked for further work and then left for later while you continue with the momentum of your first draft intact.

I also used placeholders (unconsciously it turns out) in the dialogue of the new novel. One of my beta readers pointed this out after reading an early draft. Her exact words were “everybody sure is nodding a lot.” Really? I hadn’t noticed. As it turns out, I had someone nodding six hundred thirty-five times in one hundred thousand words, about one nod every hundred and fifty words.

A tad excessive.

So I examined the usage more closely and discovered I wasn’t so much saying that the characters were actually nodding as that they weren’t responding immediately to whatever the other character had said. It was about the rhythm and pace of the conversation. The word “nod,” as I was using it, was place holding for some other form of activity. During the next re-write I fixed that, replacing “nodded” with what I really wanted to show them doing.

In both cases, I used an easily-found symbol (XX, “nodded”) to mark a passage for more detailed work in revision. In ongoing projects, I am continuing to do something similar. I am still using the XX to mark character names I don’t know yet. The “nodding” thing I’m not sure of yet, but that is always a possibility.

In my opinion, the momentum of a story is too important to jeopardize over some detail you can always fill in later. Face it, we’re going to re-write the whole thing anyway. So use a placeholder and keep the flow going.

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writing, Writing and Editing

Pulling the Trigger

So this week I faced a dilemma I think every writer faces at some point in the career. I call it “pulling the trigger.” As in do I “pull the trigger” or not?

What am I talking about?

Tuesday, I sent my new novel off to the publisher, but it sounds much easier than it actually was. Because that moment, that pull of the trigger, was preceded by days of agonizing indecision. Is it good enough? Is it as good as I can get it? Would it benefit from one more re-write/revision? Probably. Would the result be noticeably better than what I have now? (I am now working with the seventh complete version of the novel.)

That is debatable.

I was talking with a friend the other day and wondered aloud whether other people go through this and she assured me almost everyone did, especially those in the arts.

A musician practices and practices before setting foot on stage to perform a new song. At what point does she decide she’s practiced enough? When she can perform the piece perfectly? When she can perform it perfectly twice in a row? Five times? Ten?

The same goes for a stage production. When have you rehearsed enough?

For visual artists, from sculptors to painters to film directors, the question is different, but similar. Is it good enough? Is it ready? Can I make it better?

Do I pull the trigger?

Every writer who cares about what they’re doing probably goes through something like this with an article, poem, or story before they send out. Is it ready?

The truth of the matter is that there are no good answers to these questions. Is your poem ready? Who knows? Could it be improved by re-working it? Quite probably, since nothing we do (at least nothing I’ve attempted) is perfect.

Perhaps we’re asking ourselves the wrong question. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether we could improve the work given more time, but whether we can improve it enough to justify the time and effort.

We could easily spend the rest of our short lives revising our work in a fruitless quest for perfection. After all, we can never truly achieve perfection in our art. Heck, our definition of perfect can change from day to day.

Instead, we need to stand back with an objective eye and determine whether this work is, today, as good as you can make it at this point in our career. If the answer to that question is yes, then leave it alone, send it out and see what happens.

At some point, you just need to pull the trigger.

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writing, Writing advice

The First Two Pages

Most editors, publishers, and agents have a dirty little secret every writer should know. (They don’t always read your entire submission.) They do if it’s good, of course. They probably do when it’s borderline good, but that is questionable. I have it on good authority (a highly placed source) that most editors make their preliminary decision on whether to accept a piece or not before they finish the second page.

In other words, if you don’t impress them within the first two pages, you’ve probably missed your chance. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your climax and resolution are if the person reading it doesn’t ever get that far.

Okay. So how do we do that? How do we keep our works from ending up in the reject pile?

By making the first two pages so good they compel the reader to continue.

First, we need to make our opening line exemplary. It has to be better than good. It has to be the bait that draws the reader in and then sets the hook without missing. Ever. It needs to be as close to perfect as possible. It needs to be as perfect as we can make it.

The first line can set the piece’s mood, introduce the main character, the setting, the conflict and the author’s major and minor themes. But it must do all this heavy lifting with the grace and beauty we strive for in our prose. The only way we can accomplish this is through the age-old method of re-writing and revision.

It is said (by Diogenes Laertius, actually) that the Greek philosopher Plato re-wrote the opening sentence of his masterpiece The Republic some twenty times. That was just the opening line. Nobody, from the most amateur among us to the most accomplished professional or lauded author of classical literature, creates art the first time she puts pen on paper. The true mark of the professional is the willingness to do that heartrending work of re-writing and trying to create the perfect first line. Thus Paul Gallico’s famous quotation on writing: “…sit at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.”

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

The second measure we need to take to make our first two pages as good as possible, is to make sure we begin our action in what the literary critics call in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things.”) The days of a gradual build up to the action are long gone (Dickens hasn’t had a new story published in years). These days, readers (and the editors who cater to them) want everything to start NOW. If yours is a murder mystery tale, the murder needs to take place immediately, not fifty pages into the novel.

Now that isn’t saying we now can, or should, ignore the classic pyramid structure of fiction, or discard the idea of a beginning, middle, and end to a story. They are “classic” because the ideas are valid and effective; we can’t afford to ignore them.

What we can do is use the classic ideas more creatively. Perhaps we can use the beginning, middle and end in a different way, such as Edgar Allan Poe did in the beginning of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

Edgar Allan Poe was a master and what he did in this story was condense the first two parts of the story into the opening. By paragraph four, we are into the climax of the story and the rest is how the climax is achieved. There is nothing in the rule that says we need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that says they all need to be the same size or of any particular size relative to each other. The beginning could be one sentence, or most of the story. The ending could be the majority of the tale as in Poe’s work, or it could be one final word.

There is also nothing to say that the parts need to be in any particular order. The beginning does not have to precede the middle, which does not have to precede the end. We can be creative. We can begin with the middle and fill in the beginning with flashbacks.

Whatever we decide to do, we must remember that the goal is to create a work in which the first two pages are so dramatic, so compelling, the reader has no choice but to continue with the rest of the story. This is important in a general way (we all want our readers to read our work, after all) but it is crucial when presented to an editor or agent.

The editor is presented with many more works than they have room to publish. We must give them absolutely no reason to set our work aside. That means creating the best first line and most interesting first pages they have ever seen.

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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, 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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