An Unlikely Story, or Write What You Don’t Know

I enjoy mysteries. I read Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as a kid. PBS’s Mystery series was and is a favorite of mine. And yet, I fell into writing the Skoghall Series accidentally. I wanted to write a ghost story the way you might want to try a new restaurant. It sounded like a good, harmless, fun way to spend some time. Yes, all right—dinner takes an hour or two and a novel takes a year or so—the scale is different, but the idea is the same.

To have a ghost is to have someone who died an untimely and difficult death. Hence my title The Murder in Skoghall. At some point writing my ghost story, I decided to make it a series. This choice was part business, since series do better than stand alones, and part personal, since I realized I could spend the required time in this world, with these characters, writing this genre.

And now I’m finishing Book 2 of The Skoghall Mystery Series, Dark Corners in Skoghall. I’ve been thinking about the process of working and reworking a manuscript, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of months. And I’ve got some take aways for you.

The Skoghall Books

The Skoghall Books

Take Away #1: Get Expert Advice

I am one of those people who has trouble imagining that strangers would want to help me, despite evidence to the contrary. On Father’s Day I had a flat tire at Lake Harriet and some very kind strangers helped me. I would help a stranger. So why does it seem improbable that a request would be met with a yes? I share that personal information, because I’m sure I’m not the only one in this camp.

I am getting better at asking for help. Maybe I’m growing my faith in the kindness of strangers or confidence in myself or some mix of both.

Recently, I reached out to the Pepin County Sheriff. I convinced myself the worst I could get was a “no,” which isn’t really such a big deal. And it helped that I have 2 books on Amazon with 4.5 stars. Now when I say I’m a writer working on a mystery, I can direct people to proof positive. Sheriff Wener agreed to meet me for an interview, and getting his expertise on my subject has already been invaluable.

I did my book research, watched cop shows, like Bosch, and true crime shows early in the writing process, saving this interview for late in the book’s evolution. I wanted to have a list of questions specific to my plot and characters so I could get the most out of the interview and be efficient with Sheriff Wener’s time.

I learned so much over our two-hour conversation, including a lot of small things that could make or break the story for a reader who knows something about law enforcement. As Sheriff Wener answered my questions, I found myself saying, “Oh crap, I need to rewrite a scene now.” I’d written in some inaccuracies, despite all my previous research. Even now, however, I might not remove an inaccuracy or two. 

What?!

I am striving for verisimilitude, the ring of truth, not total factual accuracy. There is this thing called Creative License. Why would I keep my erroneous scene in tact? Because of the dramatic tension it creates and the lack of a better alternative. The scene I have in mind delivers both dramatic tension and humor. To be factual in that moment would cost me the humor if not the tension, and that’s a high price to pay for a minor technicality. This has a lot to do with the restrictions of point of view. I have 3 characters with point of view in this book and if I make the scene technically correct, I have no way to keep the funny event in the room with the point of view character. I am going to talk to Sheriff Wener again, and I’ll see if he has any suggestions for that scene.

Take Away #2: Drill Down Further

Two revision rounds ago, I focused on the global issues. I printed the book and read a paper copy. I made a timeline of the events to make sure everything occurred when it should in relation to everything else. I marked up the paper, then went to my computer and made the changes. I moved scenes to improve the rising action and merged others to cut repetition. It certainly improved the book.

I printed a fresh copy and read it again, focusing on character interactions, and made a few notes as I went that were then entered in the computer.

This current round, I’m reading it on my computer, making changes as I go. It’s slow reading. I read aloud often so I can hear the rhythm of the sentences. I drill down further with each pass at the manuscript and catch myself making all kinds of mistakes, mistakes I didn’t see before, but a reader would have hated me for. 

Example: the needle gets stuck in a groove sometimes. It’s like my brain is hiccuping. Shakti, the dog, knocks Jess over a few too many times. Three men have shaved heads. Jess spots hummingbirds in the garden constantly. It’s a relief to delete the extraneous and leave one or two instances that have the potential to be meaningful or pleasurable to the reader.

I also delete extra commas. Join sentences. Separate sentences. Swap pronouns for names and vice versa. This kind of sentence-level manipulation is a lot to do with the rhythm of the prose. Also, avoiding redundancy while looking for the cleanest, most pleasing way to convey my meaning. 

I ask myself if each scene is useful and necessary. And I look for things that might have happened already in book 1, then cut the repetition.

Sometimes I consciously include something a reader might think is a little slow, a little mundane. Why? Because it’s a set up. Jess admires Beckett’s hair a few times? Because he’s going to chop it off. Shakti runs away? Well, I can’t tell you about that without spoiling my climax.

Take Away #3: Pay Attention to How You Feel

Thoughts are in the head. Feelings are in the gut. If you read a passage that’s all up top, ask what you can do to drop it down into your body, your character’s body, your reader’s body. Minor tweaks to a passage can make the difference between a good book and a great one, because by the time you’ve made a hundred such tweaks, you’ve created memorable change in your manuscript.

Here’s an example from this current polishing round:

BEFORE:

Why, if Dan Grunner was such a nice guy, such a loving husband and father, was he attacking the girl from the bar? Jess wanted to believe the version of him that showed her the wedding ring on his finger and somehow planted “Great Balls of Fire” in her head. She’d decided those two things meant he cared about his wife more than anything else. And if that was true, what the hell was Dan doing in the junk shop with the girl?

AFTER:

Why, if Dan Grunner was such a nice guy, such a loving husband and father, was he attacking the girl from the bar? Jess wanted to believe the version of him that showed her the wedding ring on his finger and somehow planted “Great Balls of Fire” in her head. But she’d seen him, felt him, been him pursuing that girl in the junk shop, reveling in her fear and vulnerability.

In the first paragraph, Jess “had decided” and it “meant” and “if that was true.” Do you hear the alarm bells? You should. Jess is thinking something through instead of experiencing it. That might be preferable in many situations, but not on the page. My revision didn’t change the setting, action, or meaning of the passage, but it did change the feel of it. The verbs are active, the prose drops out of Jess’s head and into her gut—along with the reader’s—and I’ve got impactful words like “pursuing,” “reveling,” “fear,” and “vulnerability” to close the passage. Wow, right?

All of this revision is necessary—sorry folks. I haven’t gotten sick of my story or bored with it, as plenty of writers report. Honestly, I can’t imagine hating my story. I wouldn’t write it if I weren’t fascinated by it. But I do find the constant work to improve the manuscript causes fatigue. This fatigue has some side effects.

Such as a blind spot—or twenty. Those mistakes we just can’t see because we’ve seen them dozens of times already. Aren’t they normal? Don’t they belong?

Another issue is diminishing confidence in the work. I find myself reading a passage and thinking it’s dull, overwritten, too detailed, imagery is stale… At this point, I put my faith in the fact that I know what I’m doing. And I have readers who will agree with me. And I have friends who will tell me when I’m wrong! In other words, I push through the doubt. I know from decades of writing prose that my real problem is that the story is getting stale. Just like watching a movie for the 5th time, the plot lacks surprise, the characters are predictable, and I anticipate the twists before they occur. My own enjoyment of the story is ever diminishing because of familiarity, not failure.

At least, that is what I need to believe in order to finish the work.

After that, I listen to my advisors and beta readers. With their fresh eyes, they can see what I can’t. What comes after beta readers? A final pass at the manuscript with the polishing cloth—at this point, I should be done with the abrasives—and then publication.

At which point, it’s back to the plotting board for the next book!

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