I am re-posting this blog post about the early stages of writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, prior to Saturday’s reading with Mar Preston (The Most Dangerous Species) at the Artworks in Pine Mountain Club – 7 p.m. (one of the Written Word Series, a free event).
In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about 3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.
“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.
The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all. I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.
I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.
The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.
I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.
So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.
With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.