A Voice from the Past

I was looking through the folder on my desktop that holds my MS for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and, as luck would have it, I came across a file from 2011 called “notes on Chrissie Warren final draft.” These were notes my agent – Eddie the Agent – sent me after he read what I then naively thought was the final draft of the book.

It was, by my estimate, about the fourth draft and it had already changed quite a bit. What was so interesting to me was to see how much it has changed since then.

Most of his notes were about tightening it up. Places where I could trim a sentence. Places where half a paragraph could be trimmed with no ill effect. Or where an explanation of some obvious point could be disposed of.

And places where the story meandered off in a direction that just didn’t need to happen. Some action or thing that didn’t advance the story. For instance (spoiler alert!) when Chrissie’s ship arrives in Nevis, in the original version it took about three days before she and her friends left the ship. In the version that will go on sale soon, the ship arrives in port in the morning and they’re gone that night. I liked some of the stuff that used to be there, there were a couple of fun new characters introduced and a nice picture of shipboard life. But it dawdled – there’s no other words for it. The action didn’t go anywhere, the characters, while colorful, had nothing to do with the story. It dawdled.

In the rewrites that followed – and I do remember bleeding over this for the better part of a week – I telescoped it from three days in five chapters to one day and one chapter. And “telescoped” is a polite word. I beat it, hacked at it, agonized over every word. The version I’m about to introduce to the world is almost 8,000 words shorter than the version Eddie the Agent commented on, about 10 percent.

I knew that’s what I had to do to keep the pace up.

Pace. The whole thing can’t go at breakneck speed (that’s one of my biggest problems with “The Da Vinci Code.” It would just be impossible to do all they did in such a little amount of time. Don’t they ever sleep? Go to the bathroom?) But you need to be aware of the pace. It has to build, then relax slightly, build more … Each jump in the pace raising the stakes a little more, like each wave reaching a little higher up the beach as the tide comes in. And then, once you really get going, it just becomes relentless.

The original version of “Chrissie,” the very first bits of the first draft (which as near as I can tell no longer exist anywhere) was very, very different. The family was different. The situation different. And most importantly, it took forever for her to decide to go to sea, which is the turning point and needs to come in the first quarter of the story. There were some really nice scene in there. One scene – long gone – involved Chrissie walking to one of the big houses in Hampton, looking for a position on the kitchen staff. On the one hand, it really illustrated the conundrum she faced and the choice she had to make. I thought it was a well-written scene. On the other hand, it was too damn long and too much of a detour to the story. Who cares about the condition of scullery maids in 18th century Virginia? Just get to the damn pirates!

Serve the story. That’s the only rule. Serve the story. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said, whenever you feel compelled to commit a particularly fine bit of writing, whenever you find yourself oohing and aahing over your prose, go ahead and give in to it. Write it, get it out of your system. Then, delete it. That’s what the rewrites are for. Or in Sir Arthur’s words, “Murder your darlings.” The best prose is something you don’t really notice. Good prose doesn’t exist for its own merits. That’s called showing off. It exists to move the story from your brain as directly as possible into the reader’s. The story is the only thing that matters. You, as the author, matter not at all.

It was kind of fun looking back over that old version of the story, but I don’t regret the changes I’ve made. It’s better now. A better story. I think readers will like it a lot.

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