Ask Me Anything: Editing a Novel

Today I’m answering a couple of questions about editing novels.

Greg Lewolt asks:

“Editing, what condition is your manuscript in when you finally send it off to get edited? How much freedom do they have to make changes?, and what is the Capital of Washing D.C?, I can’t find the answer anywhere…”

When I deliver a manuscript to my publisher, it’s complete. It has “Chapter 1” and “The End” and everything in between. But it’s rough. By design, I pound out the first draft just to get the story down on paper.

My editor knows that what’s coming will be ugly. I submit a first draft so that she can see the gargoyle while it’s young. That way, she can offer editorial suggestions sooner rather than later.

As for the publisher’s freedom to make changes: they have plenty. But they’ve never, ever forced a change on me. That’s largely because, by the time I submit the first draft, my agent and editor have gone through months of brainstorming and development with me, listening to my ideas for the book, for the basic plot, for the characters. They offer suggestions and let me know if my ideas aren’t going to fly. By the time I actually write the novel, they’ve seen outlines and treatments and are confident that the book is going to work as a whole.

When I deliver a manuscript, my editor at Penguin Random House reads it and sends me an editorial letter. Every author gets one of these. It consists of many pages of comments and proposed edits. We authors generally spend a day or two standing over these letters with a blowtorch before deciding that yes, the editor knows what she’s talking about, and the changes she suggests will strengthen the novel. But, as the editor always tells me: the letter is the beginning of a conversation about the book. It’s not a decree.

After I rewrite, my editor will read the revised manuscript and offer additional notes. Once I revise again (and maybe again), she sends the book to a copyeditor. The copyeditor reads for continuity, grammar, spelling, usage, plot holes, and factual errors. When those edits come back, I have the freedom to accept or reject any changes.

I sit in my office all year, alone, typing. But publishing a book is a collaborative process. And all my novels are better for it.

DJ Paterson asks:

“I’ve got a two-parter for you, Meg O’Death:

a) If you compared that first dirty draft to the polished gem of a published novel, what percentage will have survived the rounds of editing (and I’m talking about physical words, sentences, paragraphs, and not story)?

b) In your writing process, how long does it take you to wrangle a first draft into shape compared to getting that original draft down on paper?

Actually, maybe this is only one question, asked in two different ways.”

I’d guess that half the words in the rough draft end up in the same position in the published novel. That’s because I deliberately write shitty first drafts, and because I’ve learned not to be precious about each and every word.

It takes me three or four months to write the first draft of a novel. (2,000 words a day, 5-7 days a week.) It takes around two months to do the first major rewrite. Honestly, I enjoy rewriting. Because, after I edit, the book is so much better. Every single time.

Your mileage may vary.

Washing D.C.? To do that, you’d need a firehose with enough water pressure to clean out the entire Capitol.

Here’s some news about my next book

I’ve been working on a project for a while, and now I can officially announce the news. I’m writing the first novel in a new thriller series. It features a young female police detective who will be drafted by an elite group of FBI criminal profilers to help track and capture the nation’s most notorious serial killers. It’ll be published in the US by Dutton, my longtime American publisher, in June 2017.

And so you know:

  • I’m keeping the plot of the novel under wraps for now. That’s because (1) a work-in-progress is a delicate thing, and talking about it can kill the magic, and (2) my job as a thriller writer is to keep readers in suspense.
  • I’m not abandoning the heroines of my other books. Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney projects are in the works. My other heroines may turn up again as well. I plan on writing for a long, long time, and telling lots of stories.
  • I’m thrilled about this. I’m delighted that I’m continuing to work with Jessica Renheim and Ben Sevier at Dutton. I owe huge thanks to my agent, Shane Salerno.
  • I’m deep into writing the new novel. The phrase that best describes where I am in the process is, “Typing like a crazed monkey.”

I’ll keep you posted as things progress.

Ask Me Anything: Inspiration… and “It.”

Meg and Edgar

Today I’m answering two related questions. Anne Molinarolo asks:

[W]hen you hear things “go bump” in the night, what is it? And does “it” find its way into your novels? Sorry about all of the Its.

In my life, the “its” that have gone literal bump in the night are: (1) squirrels that built a nest in the attic, (2) the fifty-foot tree that crashed through the fence into the backyard during a storm, and (3) my daughter’s escaped hamster, scuttling beneath the bed on clicky little toes.

In the daylight, none proved dangerous. (Getting the squirrels out of the house involved a sledgehammer and a samurai sword, but never mind.) At night, all these sounds were strange and creepy and shocking. The unknown. The nasty shapeless threat reaching out to attack. It.

Don DeLillo explains this better than I (or possibly anybody) can. I just finished his magnificent novel Underworld. At one point in the book a character watches kids play tag on a Bronx street. “Another player tags you and you’re it. What exactly does this mean?”

A fearsome power in the term because it makes you separate from the others. You flee the tag, the telling touch. But once you’re it, name-shorn, neither boy nor girl, you’re the one who must be heard. You’re the dark power in the street. And you feel a kind of demonry, chasing the players, trying to put your skelly-bone hand on them, to spread your taint, your curse. […]

What spectral genius in the term, that curious part of childhood that sees through the rhymes and nonsense words, past the hidings and seekings and pretendings to something old and dank, some medieval awe, he thought, or earlier, even, that crawls beneath the midnight skin.

I’ll wait while you read that again and absorb DeLillo’s brilliance. Me? I’m damned well going to put this “kind of demonry” into my novels. It’s what grabs readers on a primal level.

Joshua Arthur Ramseur asks:

Inspiration: an absurd whirlwind of all facets of being commanding spontaneous prose, or a constant state of curiosity allowing continuous laborious revisitory circumstance? Kerouac or Poe? Or both?

Inspiration can be both. Artistic inspiration is a sudden, spontaneous burst of creativity. It can come when observations and ideas collide unexpectedly in the artist’s mind. Paying attention to all facets of being, and learning to maintain a constant state of curiosity, will expand your ability — and readiness — to create when inspiration strikes.

And after you pour all your inspiration onto the page, or the canvas, or into a microphone, you get to revise. Of course. Inspiration still has to go through the refiner’s fire.

Kerouac or Poe? See the photo above.

Ask Me Anything 2016: Research

Dan writes:

“China Lake” will forever be one of my favorite novels of all time.

Why, thank you. You have incredible discernment and taste. I’m going to end this post here and go out dancing for the rest of the day.

Okay, fine.

As it was your first, how did you begin your research? I’m assuming that “networking” plays a big part in having technical questions answered when writing a novel. Did you have friends to rely on for questions or was there “cold calling” involved? (I was honored to be mentioned in your acknowledgements for “The Nightmare Thief” when all I did was answer a question about Toyota fuel consumption.) Were most people receptive and happy to help or was there more effort involved?

My research for China Lake started with my own observations. When I lived in Los Angeles, a wacko religious sect blanketed the city with ads warning that the Pope was the antichrist. I just shook my head, until the sect turned up at a Catholic parish where a friend was the music director. My friend found the group putting flyers under windshields, basically saying, YOU’RE GONNA BURN IN HELL. When he challenged the group, they jumped in their van to escape… and nearly ran him over.

After that, I didn’t want to do any first-hand research about religious cults.

Fortunately, copious information is available online — scholarly histories of cults, analyses of the psychology of toxic spirituality, and many, many, many websites run by bizarro religious groups, braying about the evils of music and posting countdowns to the apocalypse.

Networking does play a role in my research. Family and friends can be fantastic sources of information. For China Lake, I learned about the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake, California, from my father-in-law, who was stationed there as a naval officer. For The Memory Collector, I got a tutorial on nanotechnology from my brother-in-law, who’s a physicist. Friends have filled me in on wilderness helicopter landings, and how to serve a summons.

The biggest cold-call I made was to the Air National Guard. It took months from my first call to the California Guard’s public affairs office until a Master Sergeant at the 129th Rescue Wing phoned and offered me the chance to visit Moffett Field and meet some pararescuemen. I hate cold calling. But touring the 129th and talking to PJs gave me insight into, and appreciation for, the work they do on our behalf. And it enriched the character of Gabe Quintana, the PJ in the Jo Beckett books.

Everyone at the 129th, like almost everybody I’ve asked for help with research, was generous with their time and expertise. That includes the author of this question, Dan Kotwasinski.

For the record: Dan did more than simply answer a question for me about Toyota fuel consumption. I asked how many hours a Tacoma pickup could run if it was left abandoned with the engine idling and the gas tank full. Here’s what Dan did:

  1. He explained the rule of thumb that an engine at idle for two minutes will use approximately the same amount of fuel it takes to travel one mile.
  2. He looked up the specs for the V6 engine option with 4-wheel drive, and found the stated mileage rating (16mpg/city and 20mpg/highway, with a fuel tank capacity of 21.1 gallons).
  3. He calculated that the Tacoma will use .0625 gallons to travel one mile — meaning that every minute it burns about .03125 gallons — and estimated that it would take about 11 hours and 15 minutes to burn a tank full of gas at idle in the Tacoma. Depending, he cautioned, on ambient temperature and elevation.

He confirmed that the action sequence I’d written — along with its aftermath, and the hopes of the main characters for rescue after being kidnapped in the Sierra Nevada — were all plausible. He saved my bacon.

Research can be weird and wonderful. Writers: pay attention to the knowledge and wisdom of everybody you meet. You never know when it may help your work.

Reminder: ITW Online Thriller School


Reminder: Next month I’ll be one of the instructors for the International Thriller Writers’ Online Thriller School. I’m joining Lee Child, James Scott Bell, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Peter James, F. Paul Wilson, and David Corbett in teaching the online course, which starts March 14.

Here’s an overview of the course, from its director, D.P. Lyle, MD:

This year’s seven-week program begins March 14th, 2016, and as before the craft of thriller writing will be front and center. Each instructor will teach an aspect of craft though a podcast, written materials that include further reading and study suggestions, and an entire week of on-line Q&A with the registered students. The goal is simple: To make each student a better writer.

A brief preview of my talk on Plot is now available to listen to online, if you want a taste.

For more information or if you want to register: ITW Online Thriller School.

Question Time: Ask Me Anything

It’s that time of year. Ask me questions. I’ll answer.

Ask about the writing process, or whether it’s true I snort coffee straight from the bag before I sit down at the keyboard. Ask about my novels, or my characters. About plot and structure and dialogue and research. Or how I feel about talent, inspiration, and luck. About the secret tunnels under the Vatican, and about that thing that has built a nest in the attic. What the hell is it?

I’ll be here all week.

Dream on. But don’t open your story with a dream sequence.

When I teach writing workshops, I always warn students about what not to do. In particular, I strongly urge them not to open their stories in these ways:

  • With the protagonist staring out the window, thinking about his past.
  • With the detective squinting into the sunrise, hung over.
  • With the protagonist waking up.
  • With a dream sequence.

Why? Because these are cliches — they’ve been done ten thousand times. They’re tired. And because, if your story opens in one of these ways, nothing is happening. 

In the case of dream sequences, there’s an additional reason. When readers reach the end of the scene and read, “And then she woke up,” they feel cheated.

As readers, we immerse ourselves in a story by suspending disbelief. That is, while we read, we willingly suspend our knowledge that a story is fiction and accept it as true.  (Thank Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the concept.) But readers generally give an author only one shot at this. If a story opens with an amazingly dramatic, action-packed, emotionally resonant scene that turns out to be a dream, readers are likely to feel that the author has pulled a bait and switch.

Oh. The hero didn’t REALLY save his wife from a mob shootout. He just fell asleep on the sofa.

Huh. The heroine didn’t REALLY leap into the ocean from the deck of a burning ship. She just ate too much pizza and had a nightmare.

Readers invest themselves in the story. When it turns out that the drama is all in a character’s sleeping mind, they’re likely to bail.

Inevitably, when I urge students to avoid dream sequences, one or two will tell me that’s how their novel opens. When I ask why, they say they want the story to open with a punch — but that nothing dramatic happens until chapter five, so the dream is the only way to get some action on the page. Or they tell me they want to show the characters’ fears, longings, or memories, and “there’s no other way.”

There’s always another way. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it will be better than opening with a character’s unconscious fantasies. If you want readers to come along for the entire ride, you need your characters to be awake and in action in the physical world from the word go.