Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Major Surgery

Image by Artur Bergman, via Flickr
Before I talk about specifics, let me mention that this particular book I’m talking about was written ten years ago. Resurrecting an old manuscript has its own set of problems, but those tend to be technology and history. Oh, and let’s not forget the quality of writing. The operation I needed to perform was much more complicated.

I’ve written all my books in third person point of view, but toward the middle of my current work in progress, my critique partner kept telling me that my heroine was standing on the sidelines, without much emotion. A cardboard character. No matter what I did, I got the same response from her with each page swap.

I always have multiple POVs―four in this book―which is the reason first person never worked for me, except for two short stories I wrote for different anthologies. Was writing this one character in first person the solution to my problem? What about the other three POVs?

Before I tested the POV switch, I combined the first three chapters into one. The conversation of my separated but still married heroine, Zoe, with the man she meets on the beach and with whom she begins an affair, always bothered me. Pages and pages of babble, I finally admitted, most of which I could do without. I’ve read many editors say that a novel in progress starts at chapter three. Though I didn’t delete the first two chapters, I incorporated them into the third, giving in to a bit of telling so that the crux of the story starts much faster.

Did we really care if the guy had the sexiest overbite or wore a Saint Christopher medal? Though the reader might think he’s a main character, he’s more of a catalyst in the story. No point is spending three chapters on him. The affair causes repercussions that make Zoe a target of the bad guy and the FBI. Inadvertently, she also involves her estranged husband and his brother, a man who has spent his adult life on the other side of the law. This was a prime case of “killing my darlings.” You know, those clever lines of dialogue you love and can’t bring yourself to cut. But cut I did. The surgical procedure was a success.

Then I switched Zoe, and only Zoe, to first person. I call this arthroscopic surgery, where you go in and tweak. Convincing the reader to understand why Zoe has an affair with a stranger is where first person worked so well. I wanted to explain her need. “I” instead of “She.” “Me” instead of “Her.” The switch allowed me to get not only in her head, but in her heart. Then, of course, you meet her husband, and the reason she strayed becomes clear.

The best part, my critique partner agreed that the change made all the difference in Zoe. If you can’t trust your CP, who can you trust?


Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

30 comments :

  1. I avoid surgery at almost any cost--the literal kind, that is. Story surgery is another issue altogether. That I practice regularly (no license required). I do use internal dialogue to give the reader insight into the POV character's thoughts and feelings, but I've never written a story in first person. Maybe that's deserving of another look.

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    1. Linda, I also use internal dialogue, but for some reason, after ten books in third person, I just couldn't get this gal to come across. I fully expect that writing one character in first and three in third will get some criticism, but sometimes we have to stray from the comfortable.

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  2. One author I know compared the editorial process to surgery, starting with major surgery, then reconstruction, ending with getting down to microsurgery to fix the details. Killing ones darlings is a tough lesson, but a necessary one.

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    1. Terry, that's exactly how it is. I haven't gotten to the microsurgery part yet, but that's coming. And I thought this book was finished. HA!

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  3. Good timing for me, Polly. I recently submitted a proposal on a ten-year-old manuscript I resurrected--needed the minor surgery you mention and some tightening up. One of my manuscripts went from first to third so often It made my head spin. I was always spotting a stray pronoun that hadn't been corrected.

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    1. That's the hardest part, Judy. I'm so used to reading Zoe's part in third, I just skip over the wrong pronouns. I did put she, her, their, et al into FIND and caught a few I missed. That's after I thought I got them all. I still have a ways to go, but my CP will read it again and hopefully catch what I missed. Good luck with yours.

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  4. I love it when a critique partner can give some good advice and we are open to hearing it. I think that openness to another person's evaluation is a critical part of maturing as a writer, whether that be listening to your critique partner or your editor.

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    1. Absolutely, Maryann. We've critiqued together for years and have total trust in one another. She's strong where I'm weak, and I know that, so I listen. Not that we do everything the other says, but there's always a good reason behind what we say. We tell it like it is, according to us, and we never get mad. I'm lucky.

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  5. Old manuscripts can be a real trap. I have two that I periodically return to with scalpel and bone saw in hand. Hack, cut, stitch, graft, excise, and patch. Someday I expect to actually bring them up off the operating table.

    Nearly all my eight novels went through surgery even more major than Polly describes. My developmental editor is often brutal and almost invariably right, which has more than once precipitated total reorganization, amputation, and even plot reconstruction. I love it and I hate it.

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    1. Larry, it's great that you have such a good editor who tells you straight out what's wrong and what needs to be done. I have a couple of other half-finished manuscripts that I don't know if I'll finish. One is political, and the situation has changed so much and continues to change that I'm afraid it will be obsolete the minute it's published. Those are other considerations. The point is you have written 23 books. Major surgery or not, you have to be doing something right. Keep hacking and cutting and stitching.

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  6. I'd have a hard time changing my main character, Polly. My surprise was in changing other characters who had a POV. I write in multiple POV, too, so when it was suggested that two characters needed changes, I was happy to comply. No one suggested changing the characters I think of as main characters. So--I lucked out. Glad you bore the surgery well. If nothing else it stretches your writing. At this point, I think you must qualify as a brain surgeon!

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    1. Yes, Elaine, my brain has definitely undergone surgery since I started my writing career. I used to think of myself as normal. Not so much anymore. I'm eagerly awaiting your publication. Secondary characters, in my opinion, are as important as main characters. They round out a book, so attention to them is just as important. Thanks for dropping by.

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  7. Congratulations Polly ... I have never been able to perform 'minor surgery' ... once I go in, it usually ends being a heart transplant ... which is why I avoid operating in the first place.

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    1. Christopher, you always make me smile. But you're right. It always turns out to be more surgery than you anticipated. And I'm not finished yet. I hesitate to think what I'll do next.

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  9. The problem with third person POV is that it often sounds like an observer telling the story rather than the character. One way to fix it is to write the draft in first person then change the pronouns etc. to third person close up in the second draft. I have also seen alternating POVs with the main character in first and the rest in third. In the right hands, it can be done well. In the wrong hands it is a hot mess.

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    1. Yes, Diana, you're absolutely right. That's what happened with my character. She was an observer and not an active participant. I hope mine doesn't turn out to be one of the hot messes.

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  10. It takes a lot of courage to pull a manuscript out of a drawer. When I first got published, another publisher expressed interest in my work, so I pulled out an earlier work and they contracted for it. Big mistake. Lots of surgery needed, and it was demoralizing having it thrust upon me all at once. I didn't learn my lesson though. I pulled out another oldie later and started messing with it myself. I ended up completely rewriting it, and even then it still went under the publisher's editorial knife.

    Truth: I find myself blind to many of the mistakes in early work. I still have a couple of clunkers around and about. Will I dust them off? Not anytime soon.

    I commend you, Polly for sticking through all the edits and working to strengthen your story. Your readers will love it!

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    1. I think I was blind to my mistakes too, Maggie. It took a while to fix the time period errors. A lot has happened in ten years. I know your work--full disclosure, Maggie's my CP--and know you always "fix" things to make the book better.

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  11. I have an older ms that I keep thinking I'll go back to but just haven't. The protag is the same one I write now, but she's grown so much that I like her much better. It's third person and she was just an observer. You have the courage of your convictions, Polly, to go back and tell that story the right way!

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  12. I'll let you know how it turns out. Or I should say the readers will. These are things that writers see and all but the most avid readers might not. I have a couple of other manuscripts, but I'll have to wait until after I write the fourth book in my series.

    Has your character grown, or has your writing? I'll bet it's a bit of both. I know the writing was for me.

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  13. Hats off to you, Polly. I have a couple of mss in a drawer and the thought of dusting them off and rewriting them makes me find something else to do, and quickly. I'd love to be able to revisit those characters, (although neither one of the mss are thrillers) but the 2 series I write now are more than enough to keep me busy :-)

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    1. And good series they are, DV. I don't blame you one bit. I like a stand-alone in between my series books or I'm afraid I'll get bored. Also, it's tense trying to constantly outdo myself in the series. One of the best things about resurrecting an older book is seeing that your writing has improved. Then there's the challenge of bringing that book up to date. A fun story is a terrible thing to waste. At least I hope it's fun.

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  14. I've pulled out old manuscripts, and the thing I notice most is that technology has advanced so quickly that I'm stunned what's transpired in the past twenty years, or less. It does require a lot of rewrite or insertions and remembering that the characters can, for example, have instant communication to pass on news or thoughts.

    As far as POV I wrote my first novel in first person, and I found that limited my ability to see anything through other's eyes. I now always write in third and don't have any trouble portraying my main character's thoughts and internal feelings about any situation. Of course, you have to write the whole book from that character's eyes. I wrote one of my bigger books from two separate characters' points of view. I did this by writing most of the book from the first character's POV and writing certain sections from the other main character's POV. It worked very well.

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    1. I never had a problem before emoting any of my characters before from third person. But this time, she's less active as a lead character, in many scenes a bystander. I still prefer third person close. For some reason it works with this book. Maybe I have the best of both worlds in this one. One character in first, three in third. I hope I'm carrying it out smoothly. The trick is that it isn't jarring and hopefully unnoticeable.

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  15. I wrote my first manuscript with two POVs, one first, one third. It worked. The only person who complained was convinced I was writing romance (ha!), and at least at the time, mixing POVs wasn't done. When I started my second manuscript, I also used two POVs, one first person, one third. Well, both protagonists were male, and it seemed wrong to have a male character overly caught up in self-reflection, I ended up switching from first to third. I liked the results so much, I went back and switched my first book to all third person as well.

    I recently read a book with three POVs, all first person, none of them belonging to the primary character. I thought that was a brave choice by the author.

    VR Barkowski

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    1. Much of writing is trial and error, at least for a pantser like me. But I hate to think that I'm trapped into what's expected of me. I want to try new things, even if some of them fail. I like to see authors being brave. Kudos to that author, VR. And to you for experimenting and finding your niche, even though I know you'll never become so comfortable you won't try something different when it's right.

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  16. It does help to be away from the manuscript for a while. It's so much easier to notice what's wrong then.

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  17. I agree, Morgan. But ten years might be a little too long. The world changed. I'm having a hard time catching all the changes because they seem logical to me. Or maybe my head is in 2005. :-)

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  18. I'm about to publish my fourth manuscript that 's about twenty years old. The first three, written in the early 1990s, are my Post Cold War Political Thriller Trilogy. I kept the books in the period in which they were written but did extensive revision with the help of my editor and what I've learned about writing in the interim years. I wrote eight books before the first was published. I still have one or two more I might resurrect.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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