On re-re-rewriting

I was just reminded (re-reminded?) that Hemingway rewrote his ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times (or forty-seven times depending on the source).

Considering that a novel-length manuscript can be re-written any number of times during its initial creation, then again before giving it to first readers for their impression, then again after taking into account their comments, at least a few more times before submission to an agent, a few more times before the agent’s submission to a publisher, then if accepted, a number of times with a content editor, then again when the manuscript is in production and the fine tooth comb of a managing editor’s staff is brought into play. Let’s see, that’s a process of several years, so, thirty-nine times? Forty-seven times? Yep, that sounds about right.

But wait. That’s not for just a memorable ending phrase, that’s the whole magilla; no scratch that. The whole ball of wax. No, that’s not it. The Big Enchillada. We’ll go with that. What I mean is, in the years that it takes to go from the first words written on the first page of a first draft to a published novel, I would not be surprised to find that I have re-read and re-written the book forty times before the public sees it.

That’s not to say that I have changed every word, and in effect written forty distinct novels, but that there are changes with each and every edit, and the end product may look quite different from the original. I remember an author saying, ‘if you can’t write a three-hundred page novel then have the courage to scrap it entirely and start over at page one, then don’t bother.’ That’s a bit extreme, but he makes a point.

I remember completing my first novel. I had it stuffed into an envelope and mailed to agents before the ink was dry. It was replete with typos and grammatical errors and I didn’t have a clue about proper manuscript format. And it was accepted immediately by one of the top literary agents in the U.K.

How delighted I was to be invited to have tea with the owner of the agency at her London office in the neighborhood where Charles Dickens had once walked. She praised my work and suggested a few changes. A few WHAT?? Perfection was not achieved on the first pass?

Re-writing was painful in those early days. I believed my first draft to be so sacrosanct, I would print out the whole thing and preserve it, keeping the original draft in hard copy as a reference when making subsequent changes on later computer files. The man hours involved in the organizational process alone was so very tedious, and the boxes of draft manuscripts filled a garage.

I’m all grown up now. Cut, slash, delete, and often add. I do all of the above to the original draft thinking not of the beginning, but the end product. I guess the downside is that no anthology of my work will ever include a reference to my thirty-nine re-writes, or forty-seven, depending on the source.

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Writer’s Rewards

The postscript to my novel Ice Fire predicts that we will be hearing a lot more about methane hydrate, an alternative energy source currently being studied by nations around the world. I was right in my prediction, but not in the way I imagined.

Last week I tuned in to the first episode of the new TNT series, Dallas. The series opened with Bobby Ewing’s adopted son Christopher sitting at a country club table with potential investors. He pulls from a pressurized container a clump of ice and lights it on fire. Methane hydrate. Ice Fire. His pursuit of alternative energy sets him on a collision course with John Ross, J.R. Ewing’s full-blooded (hot-blooded?) son, a wanna-be oil barron. Let the internecine family rivalries begin.

Though not the first – and obviously not the last – to incorporate this exotic and potentially dangerous form of energy in a work of fiction, it was rewarding to get an idea out there that others also find interesting.

On a different but no less rewarding note, this small vignette was recently passed on to me by a friend. She was discussing my book with the manager of her local book store. After she left a woman who had overheard  a part of their conversation asked the manager which book they were discussing. She was told and bought my book. She liked it so much that she came back and bought the audio book which she plans to introduce and incorporate into her ‘friendship club’ over the next few weeks.

Both of these occurrences are small matters, perhaps insignificent in the larger scheme of things. But they are one writer’s rewards, part of what keeps a writer toiling at the computer hour after hour, day after day. Writers, keep your eyes open and treasure your own rewards whenever they occur, however small they may be. The stuff that dreams are made of, they are sufficient unto themselves.

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Reading and Writing; The Worst and Best Advice I Ever Received

First, the worst advice.

When my first stab at a novel was accepted – and by a well-known and respected U.K. agent – I thought I’d better learn something about writing. I was living in London, went to the nearest bookstore and bought a truck load, small truck, of books on how to write. I don’t remember much about them with one exception. I recall a published author stating that he never did any reading for pleasure while he was working on a novel, for fear another writer’s work might somehow influence his own. Novice that I was, I thought this well-intended advice had a certain logic. So while working on my own creations in those early days I eschewed the work of others. I did not read fiction. It was, for me at least, terrible, terrible advice.

What was I thinking? How did I expect to learn? By osmosis? I could write a rather lengthy book merely expressing the state of my ignorance about writing at the time. I did not know what tools of the craft I lacked because I did not know what the tools of the craft were. Et cetera.

The first to disabuse me of this self-defeating notion was Stephen King. He said he read constantly. He didn’t need to say he also wrote constantly, his extraordinary output was evidence enough of that. So I thought I maybe should read. Something.

But where to start? I had done very little reading for pleasure for years. I was a lawyer and it’s not uncommon for lawyers to experience a sort of reading ‘burn-out’ after their years of law school. But fate dropped a jewel into my lap, a memoir of a life spent traveling and reading by the writer beloved for his western tales, Louis L’Amour. One of his last books was a look back on his younger days called ‘Education of a Wandering Man.’ There was a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, a list of the books he read and the years he had read them as he traveled the world. I was also wandering at that time of my life, living in Austria and tromping into Eastern Europe; renewing my love affair with France. I had copied L’Amour’s reading list and carried it with me everywhere I went. It contained classics from ancient Greek to contemporary. I was roaming through non-English speaking countries, but was surprised to find that even in the smallest bookstores in the smallest of villages, I was able to find classics on Louis’s list. In English. It sure added to the education of this wandering man. Thanks, Mr. L’Amour, Sir.

Fast forward a few years. After experimenting with several genres, a friend suggested I write a thriller. Once again fate took my hand. A dinner conversation with friends. Asked what I was working on, I said I was writing a thriller. A gentleman in the group was an avid thriller reader. He gave me names. Said I should start with Robert B. Parker, who had learned from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Then he shared names of his current favorites and I noted them on a napkin. Oh, the places I went. Lee Child. Michael Connelly, John Connolly, John Sandford, Greg Iles. I stepped back in time and reread Ian Fleming. Kept up with John Grisham and met Vince Flynn and Brad Thor; Nelson Demille and Daniel Silva. And others like Graham Brown, Andrew Peterson and Brian Freemantle.

And I could go on and on. And as far as reading these authors, I’m sure I will.

As for my writing, these gentlemen have set the bar high, but they encourage me each morning as I face my computer. I’m inspired to work and work harder. Must meet my daily quota.

So I can get back to my reading.

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Looking at, or through your characters?

My protagonist and central character in my first novel Ice Fire, and continuing in my series of future thrillers is Jock Boucher, a black Cajun Federal Judge in New Orleans. He is a renegade, not always in step with the  rules of civil procedure when he seeks justice. Nevertheless, he has been described in a recent review as “one of the most agreeably easygoing heroes on this side of the Atlantic.” (Kirkus Reviews, May 2012) He has also been called unconventional, complex, law-bending and possessing a dry sense of humor. My sincere thanks to all who have offered comments. It is quite an experience to view something of your creation through the perspective of others.

It also presents a challenge. Knowing what readers like about a character makes it pretty important to include those traits in his next appearance. Take his complexity, for example. In Ice Fire, among other things Jock is conflicted about his feelings for his girlfriend Malika, and unsure of his feelings for her she declares a moratorium on their relationship. One can hardly blame her for wanting some space when thugs attack him in bars and bodies turn up in his driveway.

I have finished my draft manuscript for the next in the series and of course had to find new ways to continue his complexity. Repeating unresolved relationship issues was not possible. Fortunately, Jock did not let me down. The trait runs deep, is consistent and true to form. Jock is a complex guy.

And learning his traits, I’m asking myself; am I looking atmy character as I describe his thoughts, actions and reactions, or am I looking through him? Is this just a question of semantics? Have any other authors posed this question to themselves?

I can say one thing. As I get to know Jock Boucher better, traveling with him through his adventures, I do like him. Thank goodness for that. I have a friend who had a hit recording years ago and has since sung that one single song thousands of times. He has no regrets. To this day, he truly likes the song.

I hope readers will continue to tell me what they like about Jock Boucher. I will continue to try to meet their expectations of the character. it shouldn’t be too hard because, like my friend and his song, I like the guy.

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A New Book Is Like A New Child

Pub date for my novel Ice Fire is near. I’m all nerves and anxious expectation. It feels like child birth. But I’m a man.

I beg the forgiveness of all mothers as I continue with this admittedly inadequate analogy but I’ve got to do something and there’s only one thing on my mind and that’s my book and I’m wondering if people will like it and if they do will they tell me and give me starred reviews and if they don’t will they…

Stop it.

Here’s the simple truth. For me, writing is its own reward. It fills hours that would otherwise be spent on activities not nearly as fulfilling. Productive work is the salvation of mankind, but there are few pursuits in modern life where one is fortunate enough to see the fruits of one’s labors, to feel that tangible sense of self-satisfaction. Musicians and singers have the instant gratification of applause after their performance. Painters see the result of each and every brush stroke. And writers see their words on the computer screen. At the end of each day, the fruits of the writer’s productive labor stare back at him. How many can say that? I am among the most fortunate of men.

The bound copy of my new novel sits on my desk. It is the result of days, hours and months of labor, sometimes frustration, but each day was its own reward and now the sum of those days and weeks I can hold in my hand. Like a child that has been nurtured at home, I am about to send it out into the world. It is not naked or helpless as a newborn. It has been prepared for this day with loving attention by a cadre of care-givers; publishers, editors, graphic artists, sales and marketing experts. We all stand crowded in the doorway watching and waving as our young protoge walks away, then turns and smiles at us. We’ve done our best to prepare our charge for what lies ahead.

Blessings on thee, little book.

Go forth, make friends and have a good life.

Ice Fire, a thriller by David Lyons is published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books, a division of Simon and Schuster and will be available in hardcover, ebook and audio book on May 1, 2012. Available at your favorite bookseller.

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