Saturday, January 15, 2011

Writing what you don't know

I'm currently working on a horror novel (the plot of which will remain a secret for now). In a groove, I was cruising right along although something in the back of my mind kept nagging at me about chapter two. By chapter six the nagging got persistent enough that I stopped and went back.

There's a popular rule of thumb for writers to keep going forward. Finish your first draft and then go back and start editing. If you're constantly going back to edit, you'll never finish. It's good, solid, advice and something that I always ignore. Ideas are constantly popping into my brain for things to change (and hopefully improve) in the previous chapters. I regularly go back and re-edit and yet I've been able to complete three novels thus far. As I've said a number of times, a writer has to do what works best for them.

Anyway, I re-read chapter two for the umpteenth time and wondered how realistic it came across (if you're questioning yourself there's probably a pretty good chance it's wrong). I'm not talking about the supernatural stuff (that's in chapter one and bypasses chapter two), but the human condition in certain situations and how certain professionals conduct business. Okay, I'll give away this much ~ there are cops and lawyers involved. I emailed the chapter to a friend of mine who does have the expertise in that area, and asked if this sounded realistic. A couple of days later we got together for lunch. After the pleasantries and catching up we got around to my novel. She told me she read the chapter and then she just shook her head. She started with 'a law firm would never do that' and went on to explain why. In the back of my mind I'm thinking 'okay, that's not too bad, I can probably get away with creative license.' Then she went to the next part.  A little bit more complex but I figured I could fix it with a minor rewrite. The next point was a biggie. 'That would never happen!' And her reasons were sound. As she went on it became very clear that I'd have to change the entire direction of the plot (let alone get rid of, or at least change dramatically some of the characters). It also meant that chapters three, four, five, and six were useless (well, not really useless, but I'll get to that in a minute). That was a couple of weeks worth of work down the drain. Had I gone with the rule about keep going forward ~ yikes!

Am I sorry I asked for her advice? Not in the least ~ I'm grateful! And I'm grateful to have a friend who I can trust to tell it as it is without sugarcoating to spare my feelings. I'm sure you've all read books where you came across a passage or chapter where it was clear the author didn't know what (s)he was talking about. For me that ruins the entire novel. Unless the novel is great up to that point, I'll usually quit reading. There are enough good books out there that I'm not going to waste my time on a book that pisses me off because of the writing. I just wish I would've asked when I first felt that pang of doubt. Now, after mega rewriting, I feel the novel is much stronger. As for chapters three through six, well, I put them in a separate file. I know there will be places where I'll be able to pick out bits of scene and dialogue and use them later.

It all goes back to write what you know. If you don't know it ~ research (which includes friends).


  1. Excellent advice! David, you are very lucky to have a friend like that ~ one who pulls no punches, always tells the truth regardless of sparing your feelings. I can't wait to hear more of this new missive.

    Tag, E.