I often tell students that professional writers don't write, they revise. Writing can be a rewarding hobby; you need little in the way of supplies, and you can start any time. If you want to write professionally, however, you're going to have to learn how to revise. Specifically, you need to know what to do when you turn in what you consider the final draft of something to your editor and he returns it with instructions to do another draft. Maybe he includes suggestions, maybe not. Maybe you have to come up with your own suggestions. Maybe all you know is that this draft, the one you thought was final, isn't going to be published. This is where the hobbyist quits -- and where the professional's job begins.
This is the situation I found myself in last summer. As I explained at the end of my last post, I was excited to work with my editor at Doubleday, and our preliminary phone conversations suggested that he had excellent ideas for revision. He clearly knew a lot more about the structure and pacing of literary thrillers than I did. He told me that it is the detective, not the plot, that makes or breaks a detective novel. Readers return for book after book because they like to read about the hero: Stephanie Plum, Harry Bosch, Philip Marlowe, Nancy Drew. Reviewers tend to think this way as well. The editor loved Johnny Adcock. The hard part was done, he told me. What remained was to fashion a plot that felt fresh but not contrived. My editor proved expert at finding gaps and inconsistencies, and his suggestions for additional action were always well-placed. I should note, though, that he rarely gave concrete direction. He never said, "have him kidnap the girl" or "Johnny needs to sleep with the hostess in this scene." Finding solutions was my job.
So I had a summer to knock out another draft. No problem, right? Under ordinary circumstances, that's correct. But last summer my wife had a baby (actually two), and our house descended into chaos. My office became a nursery, and my life became a never-ending string of three-hour feeding cycles. Whenever I found time to write, I was so sleep-deprived that I could hardly remember my name, let alone my pseudonym. Some days it felt like I was trying to perform surgery with a butter knife. But this is a lesson, too: the professional writer does his job even when he doesn't feel like it. When he has a deadline, it doesn't matter how little he slept last night (or the night before, or the night before that?) There has been a lot of press lately about whether creativity can be turned on and off--a sort of counter-argument to the idea of "the muse" -- and I'm glad people are starting to think this way. I've always told students that you can't wait for the muse to visit; put your butt in the chair, and eventually she'll show up.
In the end, I did four more drafts. Starting with a long critique from the editor (called an "editorial letter") and then, in subsequent drafts, working from emailed suggestions, I delivered a full revision in June, another in July, and two smaller ones in August. In September I received the copyedited manuscript by email (copyediting is now done with Track Changes in Microsoft Word rather than on paper with blue pencils, another change since The Disagreement was edited in 2006). The final step was proofreading, but by that point the book was in galleys, or Advance Readers Copies, the uncorrected proofs that go out to reviewers and booksellers. In the end, I didn't change much about Johnny's personal story, but I added at least two twists to the plot and almost forty pages to the length of the book. It's a much better story now -- no thanks to the muse.
Next time: Publicity!