Why I scrapped half my new novel
And can’t wait to do it again.
A FEW WEEKS after my first detective novel, The Setup Man, was published in 2014, I got a call from my agent. She said that my publisher was asking when they were going to see pages of a sequel. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. By that point I had already published two literary novels, but The Setup Man was my first attempt at writing crime. I replied that I had a few chapters (I had at least considered the possibility of a sequel) but that I’d need a few weeks to hammer out the plot outline they were requesting as part of a proposal. “Two weeks should give you plenty of time,” my agent said. “We really shouldn’t wait any longer than that.”
Two weeks? To fumble around, maybe. I had never written a novel from an outline, much less an outline scrutinized by some of the best minds in New York. The fact that the publisher wanted to see a proposal was a good problem to have, but it was unfamiliar, and thus frightening. I took the thirty meandering pages I had drafted so far and attempted to determine where the story “wanted” to go. There’s a line of thinking among fiction writers that plot comes from character, and that to find the plot of a novel in progress you must “listen” to what the characters “tell” you. I have always thought this was the worst kind of bullshit, but I never really learned how to make a plot any other way. I was trained in an academic MFA program where character was seen as the goal of fiction writing, with plot a valuable but seldom-mentioned byproduct. So I stared at a blank page, wondering how I could determine the further adventures of Johnny Adcock, relief pitcher private eye, if I couldn’t follow him through the scenes as they occurred.
Like a lot of obstacles, this one was mostly mental. I retrained my brain to conceive of the story in the language of summary (think movie synopsis) rather than scene. And I met my two-week deadline with a cleanly-edited, forty-page proposal. My agent and editor suggested changes, which I implemented, and the proposal went upstairs to the decision makers. They offered a few more plot notes but blessed the thing with a modest deal.
Now I just had to write the book.
Again: nice problem to have. In fact, I felt pretty confident as I started working on the manuscript. Writing from an outline had its advantages. For example I always knew what was going to happen on the next page. No more agonizing! No more long showers! No writer’s block! The writing went smoothly, and I submitted the first draft on schedule about six months later. It wasn’t my favorite work to date, but it was faithful to the outline, and best of all, it was on time.
My editor took a few weeks to read the draft, then called and asked if we could talk. His tone wasn’t ominous (I’m not sure he’s capable of ominous) but it wasn’t upbeat, either. “So,” he began, “I’m seeing lots of good things in this draft…”
SOME WRITERS COMPLAIN that outlines cramp their style, and they refuse to use them. “Pantsers,” they call themselves — as in “by the seat of their pants,” which is how they plot their books. A surprising percentage of crime writers are pantsers, along with nearly all literary novelists. I myself had been a pantser right up until the opportunity came to switch over to Team Outline. I too had believed that writing from an outline was confining — and I’d been right, but not in the way I expected. The real problem with writing from an outline is that it locks you into bad choices. Remember all those seat-of-the-pants plot points I came up with during that two-week sprint to the proposal deadline? They were now fleshed out in my manuscript, and no surprise, the ones that seemed flimsy in the outline were even flimsier in scene. The editor was right — there were lots of good things in the draft. The problem was that as a detective novel, it sucked.
In an hour-long phone call, my editor discussed all the big problems. Number one on his list was a gambit I’d cooked up where Adcock impersonates a Cuban player, walks around Dodger Stadium incognito, and even conducts interviews with fellow Cubans in Spanish. Sounds implausible, right? For some reason I thought it could work. Turns out it did not. Also on the list were two of the cardinal sins of hard-boiled detective fiction: too little sex and not enough mortal peril.
The baseball scenes were good, though. And the tender moments Adcock shares with his teenage daughter. I had those, at least.
I gave myself a pep talk. I knew how crank up danger. I knew how to jack up an MPAA rating. My editor was right: sex and violence are the coin of the realm in this genre. So I went through the manuscript marking chapters that needed to be cut or revised and identifying places to add fresh blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids. The first draft was about 200 pages long. It took a couple of days to get through it. When I was finished, I tallied up the bill of changes and realized that I needed to rewrite nearly half the book.
Half the book. As in, half the book.
I HAD A PROFESSOR in graduate school, one of America’s most distinguished short-story writers, who once declared to our class that nothing gave her more pleasure than cutting 75% of a first draft. When she said this, my classmates and I all nodded like good pupils, but privately we were horrified. Most writers tend to overwrite their first drafts — Stephen King says that he cuts 10% between the first and second drafts of his novels — but cutting 75%? What kind of pleasure can you possibly derive from knowing that three out of every four words you write will be deleted, that three of four hours you spend writing are wasted? It sounds like the topic of a conference panel featuring Buddha, Job, and Sisyphus.
My point is that it could have been worse. I was only proposing to scrap 50% of my draft.
When you’re writing a book, people are always asking you how it’s going. Those closest to you — your spouse, for instance — may even have the nerve to ask when you plan to finish. These questions are posed with the best of intentions, but after I embarked on my 50% rewrite, they started to sound like needling. “It could be two weeks, or it could be two months!” I would snap. Truth was, I had no idea when I would finish. I had asked for (and received from my editor) a drop-dead date linked to the production schedule. I knew that if I missed that date, the book might not be published in 2016. Or worse, it might be published in the winter, when most of the country forgets about baseball.
What worried me more than the deadline was the potential for inconsistency. Half the second draft would consist of brand-new pages. What if the novel felt like a highway where only one of the lanes is paved? Would readers see the seams?
IN THE END, I spent the spring and summer writing not only a second draft, but a third and a fourth and a fifth. Each successive draft contained a smaller proportion of new material, and with each go-around, the older material got stronger. I would love to be the kind of writer whose first drafts are so well-constructed that they require no further work — I’m told these mystical creatures exist — but I am not one of them. Nor are any of the hundreds of writers I know.
The story I’m telling here is not unique. Maybe I’m ruining the mystique of authorship by sharing this experience publicly, but my hope is that some readers may be interested to know that what they find between hard covers (or formatted so nicely on their Kindle) is probably not everything the author imagined. There are plenty of scenes that existed once upon a time, but no longer do. As you read the new novel, consider that Johnny Adcock once roamed the tunnels of Dodger Stadium speaking Spanish with a Cuban accent.
Lots of readers told me they read the first book in the Adcock series in just a couple of sittings. With the second book, I hope to cut that to one. Pre-publication reviews suggest I’m on the right track. The experience has changed the way I think about my process. I’m no longer scared of outlines. I’ve found there is still plenty of room to compose by the seat of my pants.
I’m even warming up to the mythical 75% revision suggested by my grad-school professor. Double Switch comes out March 1. If readers like it, I’ll try to cut three quarters of the next one.