10.27.2015

On Writing the Same Book Twice

The craft of writing is one of my life's greatest loves, but 2015 has really put that love to the test more than any other since I've started down this path. Here is the story of how I completed two completely different versions of the same novel in four months.

We can rewrite it. We have the technology.
I'm not talking edits. I'm not talking revisions. I'm talking complete top-down rewrite, scrap it and start over with a blank page. You know that part in MISERY where Annie makes Paul burn his novel and then start a whole new one? It was a bit like that, only I didn't have any painkillers to numb myself afterward. And no, my agent is not Annie Wilkes in this analogy, in case you were wondering. I am my own Annie.

It all started back in March, when my agent began circulating my dark suspense book SECRET THINGS around to various publishers. While that whole craziness was going on, I had another book in the works called BLIND SPOTS. The two stories are quite different. SECRET THINGS is a neo-Gothic Southern drama about a very troubled family with all kinds of, well, secrets. It's full of bleak, twisted events and is not exactly for the faint of heart. These elements have been part of the reason why the book has not yet sold to a publisher (but we're not giving up on it yet!).

BLIND SPOTS, on the other hand, is a slightly lighter fare. It has its heavy moments, to be sure, but if we compare the two in tone, SECRET THINGS is like something Darren Aronofsky or David Fincher might make and BLIND SPOTS is more along the lines of a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller (think Rear Window or Strangers on a Train).

I started writing this book in the summer of 2014, hit a wall with it, and didn't pick it up again until it became clear that I should maybe get a second book ready to entice editors with. So between April and June, I wrestled that beast into something resembling a complete book and delivered it to my agent, albeit with misgivings. I knew it needed work, but at that point, I needed someone to tell me what was what, and if your agent can't do that, then no one can. She got back to me a few weeks later with some notes and they echoed my worries pretty much word for word.

While the seed of the book was great, everything else...well...kind of sucked. Those weren't her words. She's far kinder and more encouraging than that, but regardless of the wording, the truth stacked up the same way. If I decided to revise this book in the way it needed in order to be salable, I was going to have to scrap the whole thing and start over, and I'd never done that before.

Initially, I didn't want to do it. Who the hell does? Revising and editing are one thing. I've ripped my books apart limb by limb and sowed them back together again good as new, but tearing down and rebuilding from scratch is a whole other process, and staring at such a Herculean task was enough to turn my bowels to water. For a couple days, I nearly considered just trunking the thing and starting something fresh.

But the idea just wouldn't let go. BLIND SPOTS has been in my head for over a year. The characters feel like real people to me, their struggles a part of my physical memory. And I wholeheartedly believed in the concept, which is a twist on the marriage thriller and is actually in its own way a wicked little love story. I wanted to get this right. Dammit, I COULD get this right.

So I spent the next couple days rethinking the characters, their motivations, their backstories, everything. I also completely retooled the plot, keeping it a bit simpler while also introducing some new characters while giving a few folks from the previous version new life and dimension. For the next two months, I told this new version of the story and built an entirely new world for this very unlikely couple at the center of it all. If you put the two books side by side and changed the character names in one version, you would think they were two different stories.

The main difference, though, is I'm SO MUCH HAPPIER with the second book, and I think (though I don't know for sure yet, because she's still reviewing it) my agent will be much happier as well. I've written enough books by now to know what being on the right track feels like. I didn't feel it much at all while I was writing BLIND SPOTS 1.0. It's why I walked away from it for several months before going back to it. I didn't have that problem at all with 2.0. Like my more successful writing efforts, it basically just fell out of my brain in one go. It will still need some tweaks and further development, of course, but it'll just be regular old editing work this time, and that will be a cakewalk compared to what I just finished.

Any writer will tell you that divorcing yourself from your ego is a big part of the process of making your books as good as they can be. Many of you right now are probably weeping at the idea of having to tear down something that represents months or maybe even years of hard work and redoing it. I'm not saying you should do this with all or any of your work. Hell, I'm not even sure I could do it again for something else of mine. BLIND SPOTS was a special case of me believing enough in a story's concept to give it the best I had in me, even if it meant total annihilation and resurrection. If you find yourself staring down a similar barrel with a book that has a solid foundation, but where every wall and floor is crooked and the roof is leaking and the wiring is shorting and you know a wrecking ball is the only real option, just know that you CAN tear down and rebuild, harvesting shiny scraps from the heap as you go. And in that process, you'll really learn what you're made of.

If the agent doesn't like this version, though, I'm moving on, Yeah, it's always good to persevere through rough patches and test your mettle, but you still gotta know when to quit, and I have other ideas waiting their turn at the page. Hopefully I'll be able to report back with good news soon!

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