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.

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