Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

The Fig Tree, Yoga, and the Middle of the Book

At first glance, the fig tree in the courtyard outside my apartment looks like a round mound of large green leaves and tiny green fruits. Today, I studied it longer, though, and began to see golden-brown fruit hidden in the green. The longer my mind was attuned to shape and color of a ripe fig, the more of them I discovered. Circling the tree slowly, I reached in and harvested the fruit, choosing only the figs that were perfectly ready. My four neighbors in our building had come out into the courtyard, and I enjoyed the sight of my cupped hands offering the bounty and my neighbors’ hands one by one taking their share. Chatting sociably, we ate sun-warmed, rain-watered figs.

Later, as I began my yoga practice, I chose the theme of doing it differently. Normally, I practice without music, so I selected a CD from the bottom of the stack, strange contemplative music with drones and drums that I hadn’t listened to since I moved over a year ago. I started with a pranayama technique I seldom practice, changed the sequencing of familiar poses, and replaced others with asanas I’d neglected for a while. The idea was to change the flow of my energy and open myself to new possibilities.

I did it as preparation for writing, getting ready to tackle the middle . According to my word count, I’ve completed fifty percent of book seven in my series. The chapter in progress will be a major pivot point, with revelations about the crime and about a ghost. It should set up future challenges for Mae Martin, adding to the necessity of a trip to a place she’d rather not go—her old home town. The problem is, it feels like the beginning of Act Two, and it should be the middle of it.

I’m not cutting until I finish the first draft, though. As a pantser, I don’t yet know which of the subplots in the first half will turn out to be integral to the story and which can be removed. Several of them surprised me, but then, my ongoing characters have lives of their own. I’ve never suffered for lack of material. This is where my notes on possible directions and loose ends come in. I get floods of ideas and record them in case I forget, but as the book progresses, some of those ideas may not fit. Some of the loose ends will turn out to be dead ends I can cut. At this point, I look at that list and see a lot of major events yet to come, a lot of little green figs, but that may not mean the book is going to be too long. The pace should be picking up. I might really be half-way through. When this draft is done and I can step back and study it after a break, I’ll be able to see the subplots that contribute to the whole, like ripe figs hidden in the leaves.

I may have to rearrange events, the way I did my yoga practice. Perhaps that pivot point in the middle would make a good beginning or a good chapter three. Maybe it’ll be the beginning of Act Three. Revisions like that would be hard but satisfying. In fact, if it’s difficult, it may be more fun than if it was easy.

And I have an end goal. Not just a story, but readers. I won’t see them the way I saw my neighbor’s hands taking figs from mine, but creating a new book leads to the same joy: sharing.

Thank You for Not Enjoying My Book

Since my turn on this blog comes around on the fourth Thursday of the month, every year I get to explore a new facet of gratitude on Thanksgiving. This year, I asked myself, what’s the most unusual thing I’m grateful for? How about thanking someone who didn’t like one of my books?

As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve stayed in the Guppies subgroup, short for “great Unpublished,” long after moving out of unpublished territory. Like many authors, I find the group’s benefits too valuable to leave behind. One benefit is the opportunity to do a manuscript swap with another author and give each other feedback. In addition to getting input from my regular critique partners, I always seek out at least one new critique partner or beta reader per book, someone who is not familiar with my series.

This time, I did a swap with an author who turned out not to like my work, and I didn’t like hers. It was great. Since neither of us was wrapped up in plot and character, we saw all the technical problems each other needed to address. She noticed some things the other six people who gave me feedback didn’t. They were following the story, turning the page, emotionally involved, and wondering what would happen next; she was disengaged. Though I continually get better at weeding out my crutch words and my over-used habitual phrases, certain ones are so natural to me they become invisible. But they were visible to her, and likewise her habits were visible to me. She also noticed where I needed clearer time transitions at the beginnings of chapters, where the background was unclear, and where a long chapter should break in two. I thank her for not enjoying my book. She helped make it better.

This was the second time in writing my six-book series that I’ve had this experience. Years ago, I swapped an early draft of a book that later evolved into The Calling with a woman who didn’t even finish it. Her assessment was harsh, not as tactful as the Guppy guidelines suggest we should be. My prior swap partner on that manuscript liked my characters so much, the plot and pacing weaknesses didn’t register with her. This ruthless second critique motivated me to study plot and structure and then revise from the ground up. After that, I reworked the book chapter by chapter with a critique group. The final product has been well-reviewed, and bears little resemblance to the version that my swap partner so disliked. I am grateful to her for tearing it apart.

Of course, I’m equally grateful to critique partners who did like my books. It’s useful to get insights and suggestions from someone who enjoys the work in progress, noticing where it could improve but also telling me what they find effective. When my critique partner who didn’t like the book still said that the end of Death Omen made her cry, I was sure I’d done something right.

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

 Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy links and preview

Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is currently free on all major e-book retail sites.

How a series is like a spider plant

spider-plant

My writing process reminds me of a spider plantsprouting new plants which have potential to live and thrive if I cut them off the parent plant and pot them. But I have to choose how many little spiders I want to do that with, and how many I’d rather leave attached or simply trim off.

My last book, Ghost Sickness, took root from two stories I discarded. A scene that ended up being close to the end of it was originally the beginning of one of the rejected plots, while several key characters and settings came from the other. Maybe I should have entitled this post “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” because when I’m cutting, I store a lot of the cuts in a Scenes to Recycle file. It often ends up being the gentle way to kill my darlings, but it can also lead to creative recycling. Shaman’s Blues, my second book, hatched from a subplot in Soul Loss, which was originally going to be the second book and ended up being the fourth.

I’m well along in the first draft of the sixth book in my series, tentatively titled Medicine Buddha, and I can see that it’s going need trimming. I like the subplots better than the main plot. The antagonist doesn’t feel strong enough. My protagonist doesn’t have enough at stake. But I like the theme I’m working with and I love the settings. I’m also happy with reintroducing some characters from prior books, giving them important roles in this one.

This work in progress hatched like a baby spider plant from a second draft of Ghost Sickness. I cut scenes and subplots from it which are now the opening scenes of the main plot of book six. My protagonist, Mae Martin, attends a workshop on energy healing and medical intuition. There she encounters a fellow student, Sierra, who makes claims about reincarnation and self-healing and causing one’s own illness because of karma. She also claims that Mae’s boyfriend is part of a special soul group with her and that Mae isn’t in it. When I dropped Sierra into the workshop scene, I had no idea she was going to be my main antagonist and I’m still not sure she is.

I don’t like to repeat myself. Since the crimes in my books aren’t murders, I have to think of new types of wrong-doing for each book. Sometimes the malfeasance is on a spiritual and ethical level; sometimes it’s a criminal act. I’m trying not to make Sierra an echo of Jill Betts, the neo-shamanism expert in Soul Loss, and I’m also aware that I can’t repeat the manipulations done by Charlie, the shady professor in The Calling, who misuses his knowledge of spirituality and alternative healing.

Maybe this antagonist will evolve, or be replaced as the real “bad guy” in the book by a person who’s in her shadow right now. Maybe she’ll end up being a victim of sorts. That was my original plan but my characters acted differently than I thought they would. Still, I think it would be interesting if Mae had to protect and help a strange, difficult person she dislikes. I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll recycle that idea in the next book. It could work better there. First, I need to wrap up the current WIP. Then I’ll see which little spiders need to be trimmed and set aside for possible other books, and which will get to remain part of the big plant.spider_plant2

*****

The first book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents through the end of December.callingebooknew