Super Heavy Revisions: Come in Like a Wrecking Ball

Just pretend for a minute that you're Miley. Wait, just stay with me...
No, this isn't really about riding on construction equipment while scantily clothed. This isn't about a relationship gone wrong (well, not quite). This is a story of how sometimes if a story isn't working, you can't be afraid to bust the living shit out of it to make it better.

I'm currently belting out my latest novel, A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, and aiming for an early May deadline. Pretty sure I'm going to make that deadline too, though if you'd asked me three months ago, I would have told you the project was more or less dead in the water. I'd reached about 30K words and just felt like the project wasn't gelling. So I set it aside, as I tend to do when I reach a certain impasse with a story, and then I came back to it several months later to see if my feelings had changed. I started in from the beginning and almost immediately began having the same misgivings. Something just wasn't right.

But I couldn't quit the story. I liked the main conceit of it too much. A deranged woman (Nadia) obsessed with a particular married couple takes out the wife and inserts herself into her place, basically holding the husband (Wyatt) captive. She even gets plastic surgery to look like the wife. And the husband, to his astonishment, eventually starts to have feelings for her. It's sort of a weird inverse on Vertigo with some Talented Mr. Ripley and American Beauty thrown in for good measure.

But I just couldn't get past the idea that I was telling the story wrong.

For starters, much of it was being told in the retrospective, and that can be a problem right off the bat. In fact, that was the whole framing device. I had a present-day story thread from a cop's POV. He was interviewing Wyatt, who arrived at his station under strange, murderous circumstances. Alternating with that were chapters Wyatt's perspective that were supposed explain everything leading up to that point. He and the cop both were going to have parallel and somewhat related storylines. I also had occasional diary entries sprinkled in between from Nadia, which explained some of her motivations.

But the deeper I got into the book, the more it started to feel like a hot mess. The attempt to have so many camera angles was actually diluting the entire story. If it's supposed be about this messed up marriage, and if it's supposed to be a suspense/thriller, then first of all, it should probably be from the POVs of the people in that marriage, and it should be told from the moment, with the perspective up close and roving right alongside the main players, which gives more of an opportunity to build suspense. I also wanted an opportunity to really dig into Nadia's head, to watch her story arc unfold actively, instead of just through diary entries of shit that already happened. Telling things that already happened usually isn't as exciting as telling them as they're happening. I also think the story is more effective when we can give readers an opportunity to root for Nadia's success or her demise, because she's a nasty character, but at the same time, I think we all secretly enjoy rooting for the bad guy.

It also makes for more enjoyable writing on my part, which is also very important if you're looking to sustain a story for the long haul.

So I decided to go all the way back to the beginning and tear it all down.

You really hate me right now, don't you?
First, I wrote an actual outline for how I saw this whole story playing out. Yes, you read that right. I wrote an entire outline. It's so unlike me, but given the trouble this story has already given me, I needed to know I could take it to its ultimate conclusion, and that meant actually mapping it out this time. Once I had the outline down, I was incredibly pleased and excited to actually get the writing done. The outline has changed a few times since I wrote it down, but it's easier to tweak an outline than it is to rewrite huge chunks of story, so in many ways, the outline has served me very well in the process of getting through this book.

Starting out on version 2.0, I wrote a prologue followed by an entirely new opening chapter from Nadia's POV. Then I spliced in Wyatt's first chapter from the old draft. Then I wrote a fresh Nadia chapter, then spliced in existing husband stuff, and so on and so forth. And in the meantime, I've re-edited everything as I've gone to ensure there were no seams and other inconsistencies. Character motivations have changed a great deal, and a whole new backstory for Nadia has been built in the process, which provides a firm grounding for her off-the-wall actions.

As of this writing, I'm nearly to the end of what I can splice in from the old draft, and from that point on, it's going to be all fresh writing. Thankfully I'll have the outline to guide me.

Anyway, the point of all this blathering is to show that sometimes you can have a good story idea, but if you've framed it wrong, then it's going to change the entire scope of things. Point of view and structure matter, and if it's not working, then you can't be afraid to go in with the heavy equipment and knock out a bunch of walls and rebuild. An author's first attempt is never inerrant. Hell, sometimes the second and third attempts aren't either.

I'm not sure I could have done this kind of revision work earlier in my writing career, but I have to say, I love doing it. I really end up learning a lot about my characters and their motivations, and I gain a greater understanding of the storytelling process as a whole. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. And don't think you're chiseling your book into a stone tablet. Stories are malleable things.


The Bad Review Spin Cycle!

Aspiring and non-writers alike tell me all the time how much they would hate getting bad reviews of their work. And while to a certain extent I can appreciate that feeling, because getting negative reviews is never something I would actively choose (I want EVERYONE to love me! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LOVE ME!), I can also say that once you take the time to really think about your negative reviews, you will see that very few of them are actually going to be detrimental to your success. Unless of course, you let them be by striking out at reviewers, stalking them, and otherwise letting them make you into a bitter poopy head.

So I'm going to list five of the most common types of negative reviews you might encounter out there on the wild frontier. While you can't control what people think of your work, you can control how you let them affect you, and I'm going to show you how. Now let's go hunting for some silver linings!

1. The Quick Hate Drive-By

This is a one-star review accompanied by a very brief sentence. "This sucks." "Hated it." "Don't waste your time."

These reviews are frustrating, because sometimes you want to know what exactly they hated so much about it. I know when I dislike something enough to use the word "hate," I tend to go out of my way to explain why, but then again, I'm a writer. I can't hold everyone to my verbose standards.

Spin: People reading negative reviews of your book aren't going to glean enough evidence from this person's feedback to make a decision one way or another. If anything, they probably won't take the person who wrote it very seriously, especially if there are plenty of positive reviews to offset it.

2. The "Meh."

These folks usually give 2-3 stars, followed by a general write-up about how they thought it was bland, boring, disappointing, or just "okay."

Admittedly, this is my least favorite review to receive, because it could mean (unless they're a regular reader of yours) that this is the only chance you'll ever have to win this person over. My goal as a writer is to captivate you, either out of pure love or hate. Offending someone's sensibilities is far better than being forgettable. But still, it's not the end of the world.

Spin: Your work might not have wowed them, but they at least took the time to go online and say so. That alone says they might be able to give you another chance down the line. There are books by some of my favorite authors that I've given a "meh" to, but then I turned around and gave them a raving five stars on something else.

3. The Ad Hominem

This is when the reviewer spends more time attacking you personally or reviewing "between the lines" stuff that they interpreted from your words instead of the story itself.

Reviewers like this typically have a bone to pick with just about everyone, so it probably isn't just you. Often times you can look at their review history and see they are generally displeased with most of what they read. Like most online trolls, they're probably lonely souls in search of a punching bag, and they likely approach most art and entertainment prepared to hate it.

Spin: Customers aren't often swayed by reviews that come off as mean. Or if they are, they're usually piqued into enough curiosity to try the book out for themselves. Just as you would deal with any bully, realize that the issue isn't with you, it's with them. You could have written a completely different book, and they'd probably still hate it.

4. "This Is the Worst Book I've Ever Read"

As the title suggests, you'll probably encounter this or some similar hyperbole in a review from time to time. There are some people out there who will just violently dislike everything about your book. It'll make them spit bile and think up whole new creative insults they've never made before. It'll turn them into seething raptors desperate to clean your offensive, awful, no-good words from their brains by any means necessary.

This review, for me, is the crown jewel. Of all negative review types, this one is my favorite. Also, I don't get them terribly often, which probably makes them easier to swallow, but they're still entertaining to read on a purely academic level.

Spin: First off, I highly doubt it's the worst book they've ever read. Emotions sometimes run high and make us exaggerate things. That being said, high running emotions can be a GOOD thing. Honestly, whether it's from love or visceral hate, I love inspiring strong reactions from people. That means they'll never forget me. I could go about my life and become a hugely famous bestselling author, and that person will be walking through Barnes & Noble or Walmart or some other store one day and they'll see my latest book and they'll remember my name. And they'll be like, "OH MY GOD THAT PERSON!" And what will they almost invariably do? They'll pick up the book. They'll turn it over and read the blurb. They might even read a few pages. And from there, because maybe it's been awhile since they've hate-read something, they'll buy it. Ding ding ding, you win.

5. The Professor of Hate

This is like the Great White Buffalo of reviews written by a person who dislikes something and very eloquently and convincingly details why in an essay that reads almost like a college level book report. They extract sections, pick apart your characters and motivations, and in the most civilized way possible detail all the ways in which you suck. These folks are so good that sometimes, by the end of their reviews, you find yourself nodding in agreement with them. Over your own book!

Argh, these particular pills can be hard to swallow. And if you're not careful, sometimes you can wind up ruminating over them for days, wondering what you could have done differently. They can eat away at your confidence like rust on a tin can left out in the rain. BUT you can still spin this one in your favor.

Spin: Someone who will take the time to thrash you open with virtuosity has more than likely come to respect you in some way. They see potential, perhaps more so than the other haters, and it's why their review can be so scathing. This is someone you can learn from, but also someone who might actually come to love your work. They will probably be interested to see your growth over time. And customers reading these reviews, again, may be swayed to check out the work just to see if they wind up coming to the same conclusion. At worst, you could earn yourself a new sale. It's rare that a review of such a caliber kills a book dead in the water, unless it was already headed there in the first place.

Hate and dislike is a powerful force. It can make us feel bad about ourselves by calling to those internal voices most of us have about feeling like impostors and hacks. But sometimes the right kind of dislike breeds infamy, and infamy sometimes sells.

Finally, if you are actually in the position to be reviewed AT ALL, it means you've finished a book and had the guts to get it out there into the world. It can also mean (if you're traditionally published) that a lot of people saw the potential in your work to invest their time and money into you. You're playing the game instead of sitting on the sidelines because you're afraid you'll get grass stains on your perfect little uniform.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather take my knocks and be reminded I'm alive than be a wallflower.