Friday, July 06, 2012

In Retrospect

After the recent discussion about what we're reading and why, I have a rather shameful confession. At the moment, I'm re-reading my own books.

It started innocently enough. I met a lovely couple at a community event, and while we were eating dinner and sharing information about ourselves I mentioned that I'm a mystery writer. Not long after, I received an e-mail from the wife saying that they had found the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series at the library and both she and her husband were reading it.

I was pleased that my new acquaintances had bothered to seek out my work. But the first thought that popped into my head was, "Oh, my! My first book" (or something to that effect). I looked over at the bookcase, and there it was in the sunshine yellow cover (Cornwall, England in summer). I went over and picked it up, looked at the image of beach and water and the word "MURDER" drawn in the sand.

I decided to read the first chapter or two to see how much I should cringe about words I had written over twelve years ago.

I was also curious about whether I could now read my own book – which I had not opened in at least five or six years – as if it were reading a book written by someone else. It turns out, I had no choice. As I began to read, I realized that although I remembered the basic plot, there were scenes that I didn't remember. Still reading hours later, I came across a character that I found fascinating. But I had no idea what had inspired her – even though her appearance represented a major plot twist.

I also found scenes that I wanted to edit right there on the page; dialogue that sounded clunky to my now better-tuned ear. But, all and all, it wasn't bad first effort.

I was patting myself on the back about that when I remembered it wasn't a first effort. I started trying to be a writer when, as a teenager, I persuaded my parents to pay for a short story correspondence course. Then there was the writing I did in college as an English/Psychology double major. And the two romantic suspense novels I wrote years later when I was living in Seattle (and that are still packed away in a box). Actually, by the time I got to this first published mystery, I had spent five years as a member of a writing group endlessly revising the book that became the second in the series. Given all that, maybe this first published book should have been better.

But what still surprised me was how well a writing exercise had paid off. I had written this book because I wanted an excuse to meet a friend and her young son in England for a week's vacation. Having no expectation at all that the manuscript would ever be read by anyone other than the members of my writing group, I had let myself have fun in a way I never had during the five years I was trying to write a book that someone would want to publish. Lizzie, Quinn (who in the five-year book was a one-time character), and I went on vacation, and although they had a miserable time, I had fun channeling my inner Agatha Christie. And then an opportunity to submit to a small independent publisher came up and this was the only book I had done. And so I sent it off – and suddenly found myself with a series and had to figure out how to make it work when I hadn't planned in advance for Quinn's continuing presence – when in this version he was a cop from Philadelphia and Lizzie lived in Kentucky. Hair-pulling time.

So I'm re-reading to see what happened as these two characters evolved and my writing changed (hopefully, for the better) over time. I'm also reading for a more practical purpose. I'm about to try to revamp my website (with the help of my webmaster) because I need to create a space for my new series. I am going to have to finally have a Facebook page, but I'm hoping the website can do much of the work. Therefore, I need to try to understand my Lizzie series, to think about what it says about my interests as a writer, so that I can figure out the overall look of the website. . .

What I'm really hoping is that while re-reading my books, I will be able to think through "how to write a series." For example, what do I know now about the do's and don'ts of writing a series that I didn't know when I started. I wrote myself into a few minor corners as I recall, particularly because of that unplanned first book. And then there was Lizzie's age. Thirty-eight in the first book. Five books later – in my slow-moving series time, it's still only about two years later – she is about to turn forty. She is concerned about having children. But that's her problem, not mine. I did provide her with a potential father for the children she might want to have. Assuming they stay together – and after five books it would be hard to break them up. Now, that . . . if I were doing it again, I would have thought more about adding a "relationship" to my mystery. Having a strong male character in the mix means that I have to spend time figuring out how my female character will avoid being rescued by him. But I like my male character, and he has been one of the catalysts in my female character's personal growth. Locking horns with him, being challenged by him, has made her stronger.

And I wouldn't change from first person to third. Sometimes – as I'll undoubtedly remember in vivid detail as I re-read – first person sucks. I have occasionally cheated a bit by writing scenes in the past from the point of view of another character. But only for a chapter. That means Lizzie has to be there in every scene, and the reader sees Quinn, my male character, only through her eyes. But this isn't something I can change. The overarching theme of the series is what happens when Lizzie sets out on a journey of self-discovery. Or, I think that's the theme. Maybe there's something else. Something about relationships or death. Or how to live even when you're afraid.

At any rate, the new series is in third person and I don't really know what I want to say. I can only see as far as the first two books. There is a concept, but I need to go deeper. So I'm turning to Lizzie and Quinn for comfort, and hoping I will find some clues about who I am as a writer that will help me to shape the new series.

Will let you know how it goes.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Bottom line, it's a more puzzling process than those of us who manage to get published care to admit.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Exactly. I'm still puzzled and fear I'm going to remain that way.

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WOW Gold said...

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