Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

Author

I’ve been absent from the blog these past few weeks, but for good reasons, I swear. Mainly, I was finishing up line edits/final revisions to my novel. These revisions coincided with yet another family vacation. Fortunately, this one was a visit to family in Seattle, so I had a team of people available to look after my son and give me some much-needed chunks of time. Everyone was extremely understanding about this situation, and more than patient with me as I frantically went into last-minute brainstorming mode about such things as knives and twine (reworking a climactic scene) and other issues.

Mostly, I worked odd hours here and there, and and very early in the morning, taking advantage of my four-year-old’s jet lag. I also worked a little in a remote lodge on Mount Rainier, where we spent a weekend. There’s nothing like mountain air to clear your head! Ideas and solutions came easily to me at 5,400 feet, without the distractions of television, Internet access, and social media.

Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier. Yep, that’s snow in August.

Miraculously I scavenged enough time to get the job done. In the airport security line, leaving Seattle, I got an email from my editor. Revisions accepted; the book is off to copyediting! The production process has begun. The words “you are ALL DONE” were incredible to behold. I’m still in a state of disbelief.

Near the end of our Pacific Northwest sojourn, I received another bit of exciting news, in a serendipitous way. We went on a day trip to Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula. I haven’t been to Port Townsend since high school, when I attended a creative writing camp which run by CENTRUM. CENTRUM (the arts organization, not the vitamin) literally changed my life back then, helping me to reconnect with my childhood ambition of becoming a writer. I met like-minded kids, worked with professional authors, and became, in that magical week, determined to write for a living someday. So two decades later, here I am returning to that site, and on the ferry boat I receive a magical message from my editor. A JPEG of my book’s cover art.

WOW.

It was a very emotional moment. It’s been a long journey. At 18, I never would have imagined I’d someday return to the CENTRUM grounds, staring at an image of my book cover (on an invention called the iPhone, no less!)

Fort Warden (Port Townsend, WA) where I returned to visit the grounds of CENTRUM

And the cover art? Soon to be revealed! Very soon! All I can say right now is I love it so much, I gazed at that little image on my phone for the entire ferry ride, missing all the scenery around me.

More excuses for being missing in action on the blog:

  • I’ve been busy with a website makeover. I’ve found a fabulous web designer who has totally captured my vision of a website and is hard at work making it a reality. Stay tuned; I’ll reveal it this fall!
  • I’ve been getting a new group blog ready to launch. September 6 is the launch date for Sleuths, Spies and Alibis, a group of seven kidlit mystery writers. I’m having lots of fun with this! 
  • It’s August. My kid’s day camp has ended. No childcare till school starts, after Labor Day. Whew!

Okay, so I have this bad track record of working on vacations. I thought I had reformed after a trip to New Mexico several years ago, when I literally chased a FedEx van to get a delivery from a publisher in a remote mountain village. I started traveling without my computer. I told clients well in advance that I would not be available for freelance writing and editing work on certain dates, due to previously scheduled family vacation time. (I actually had to memorize the words and practice saying them).

But putting up walls around a novel you’re revising is not so easy. Especially when you’re in the thick of it and trying to ride that narrative wave. Suddenly those carefully constructed walls start to crumble and slide like a sand castle.

I planned to turn in this phase of my novel revision on June 30. It was done, all ready to go. I thought. Then I discovered a plot glitch. A pretty gnarly tangle. When one of my editors said I could take a few extra days to finish it up, I decided to leap at the chance to fix the problem. Even though it meant I’d be looking at the manuscript while on my family vacation. Even though it meant there was a good chance my family would riot.

My family has been more than patient. I get up early and stay up late. While with them, I try very hard to stay in the moment and not let my mind drift to the Novel.

It is a strange sensation to be surrounded by people on vacation and yet not truly on vacation, since I don’t feel completely free until this problem is solved to the best of my ability. It kind of feels like being separated from revelers and beach-goers by a thin sheet of glass. I’m relaxed, working in a gorgeous setting. Yet I also feel like a radio channel is always on somewhere, connecting me to the book even when I’ve turned off the laptop and walked away.

And because I’m always working on something, or scouting for new material, I do wonder if there is always a channel left on somewhere, distant voices jabbering away. I wonder if I have ever managed to fully detach and relax on vacation. (I got the idea for the novel I’m revising now while on my honeymoon!) On some level I’m always observing, noting, collecting. I’m scribbling ideas on napkins. I seem more vulnerable to this affliction while away from home.

How do writers take a “proper” vacation? And should they?

I’m still buried in revisions, and am working overtime today (whatever “overtime” means for writers) so I can take tomorrow off and attend Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference here in Boston. But as promised, here are some devices and strategies that have been helping me during this phase of revision:

Three Low-Tech Devices To Aid Revision:

1. A large dry-erase calendar. Staples carries all sizes of white boards with blank calendar boxes; you can put in your own dates and change them as needed. I’m altering the time frame of my novel somewhat, as well as the sequence of events and revelations, so it’s great to play around with all this on a calendar before making a mess of the manuscript. I know you can play around with dates and calendars on a computer too, but having key events written on a big, physical calendar really helps me. I can see them at all times, and I can move events around so easily with the dry erase markers. I also have events color coded: major plot events in green, subplot events in blue. Things I’m not sure about, or which are moving around still, in red. Because the main events in my story take place over a span of just a few weeks, this calendar system works for me. I’m not sure what I’d do if I were dealing with a larger span of time. Buy several boards?

2.Post-It Notes. I am chewing through these — I’ve gone through three big packages already. The square ones are just the right size for writing down fragments of ideas, questions, reminders, or small issues to go back and fix. I also flag passages of the novel that I’m going to paste or incorporate somewhere else, so I don’t lose them. I stick them in the hard copy of my manuscript. When I’ve dealt with them, I just throw them out, which is very satisfying. Right now these are working better for me than keeping a log of issues or ideas in a notebook; I simply don’t have time to go wading through lots of handwritten pages. Again, having tangible reminders to work with seems to work better for me than notes or comments within the Word document. It cuts down on time I spend endlessly scrolling through the document.

3.A three-ring binder. I have the hard copy of the manuscript, with my handwritten notes and my abundance of post-it notes, punched into a binder so I can flip through it or reread it like a book. It travels with me in the car and I can look through it or read parts of it at odd times.

Two Strategies for Tracking Changes:

1. A chapter-by-chapter chart. I created a simple table in Word. For each chapter, I log the setting, the time frame, the key characters, and questions that I want the reader to have in mind by the end of the chapter. With the questions, I include questions about the main mystery plot (“Will the gangsters catch up with them?”) as well as the subplot (“Will Edge call Violet?”) I code the subplot questions in blue. This chart helps me see at a glance if I’m varying my locations, moving forward in time clearly or quickly enough, giving various characters adequate time on stage, and weaving the subplot through. The questions at the end of this chapter also help me determine if a chapter is too skimpy or full. If I have few or no questions arising, I haven’t added to the plot enough. If I have too many, the chapter may have too much information — maybe it needs to become two separate chapters or some developments need to move. By the end of the novel, all of these questions should have been answered somewhere. If not, I have loose ends to tie up.

2. Placeholders. Within the manuscript, I frequently type in ALL CAPS to indicate the type of information I need to redistribute or add somewhere. If I don’t have the time or energy to do so, or if I have a problem I need to think through, these are places I can return to later, I can easily see where I need to return when I’m reading through the manuscript. This way, I don’t feel like I get bogged down very often. I’m trying to move forward as much as I can, and go back to trouble spots and rough patches when my mind is most fresh.

Three Psychological Strategies:

1. Remain calm. I try to deal with just a chapter or two a day; if I can do more, great. Thinking of the novel as a whole, or deadlines, would just make me freak out.

2. Eat, sleep, exercise. I try to do one of those things every day!

3. Eat your kid’s Easter candy. Keep that basket right by you. Enough said.

Occasionally, art and life collide. Freaky coincidences happen. Sometimes that’s cool. But not when it involves a rock flying into your house at 2 am. Which is almost exactly what happens to some characters in the novel I’m busy revising. And which is exactly what happened to me last night.

I’ve written a mystery, and plenty of mysterious things happen in my plot. I’ve chortled over clever plot twists and anguished over plot-holes. I’ve had fun ramping up suspense and having spooky things happen around my main character, especially in the beginning of the novel. Among the fictional events that take place: an art heist, involving a rock hurled through a window, and a house hit by vandals, also involving a rock through a window.

The rock that flew out of fiction and through my actual window (which may cost a real sum of around $1,000 to repair) was nothing to chuckle over. It scared me to death. My husband and I awoke to a crashing sound, which, groggily, I assumed was a gigantic bin of my son’s Legos capsizing downstairs. After a few minutes I decided to go pick them up, since our cat has a plastic obsession and I didn’t want her eating the little ones. Only when I got downstairs did it occur to me: my son does not own a gigantic bin of Legos.

Indeed, his tiny tray of Legos was intact. I wandered into the playroom (an attached sunroom, all windows) to see what might have fallen from a shelf. And saw the rock. And the mangled screen. And the jagged shards of glass glinting in the moonlight, in the window frame and all over the floor. And the cat staring at me with wide yellow eyes.

My husband called the police, who promised to send someone over. By 2:40 am, no police had arrived. It was a tense forty minutes. Outside has never looked so dark. Were we being watched? Had we been targeted for some reason? (Paranoia: did someone read a recycled draft of my novel in the trash and decide to reenact the very scene I was revising?) My husband switched on the TV, and everything on it seemed to be about violence or crime. We called the police again. They said we were one of eight such incidents and they were slow in coming over. Somewhat relieved that we were the victim of some sort of spree, probably not a single target, we decided to have them come check it out in the morning, and we went to bed.

And did not sleep. I had a taste of real fear, the emotion I was trying to fabricate in my characters but hadn’t exactly nailed. I couldn’t stop picturing that big ugly rock sitting on the white rug in my son’s playroom, like a ghastly intruder with body odor and bad breath. Oddly, a part of me detached — my writerly mind — and thought, I have to get to my computer and write all this down! This so relates to my book! But I didn’t really feel like sitting by a window.

In the harsh morning light, I didn’t feel scared. I felt violated. Glass frosted my son’s bookshelf and toys. His favorite toy, a big construction crane, had been broken. He burst into tears. We had to explain to a four-year-old how this had happened. He didn’t buy our story about the big wind blowing the window out, especially when he saw the rock on the floor. Later, when we found an abandoned skateboard in the bushes by the window and a policewoman carted it away for fingerprinting, he seemed to put the two together. “I think a big mean boy on a skateboard threw that big rock into my playroom and broke our house!” he exclaimed.

I felt outraged. A little part of his innocence was shattered. He now knew he lived in a world in which a rock could come hurtling through a window.

Information unfolded throughout the day. We were one of 19 or more such incidents that took place in the middle of the night. Likely kids on a spree, bored at the tail end of Spring Break. But not the kind of thing you usually find happening in our pleasant, quiet, suburban town. A mystery. A real one. And it wasn’t very fun.

The rock through my window made me think about how lucky we are that it wasn’t a worse situation. No one got hurt. The window can be replaced. The lamp and toys can be replaced. There are more violent and terrifying events in mysteries, both fictional and real. I do now have a glimmer of insight into how the victim of a crime would feel, and I will write with even more empathy going forward. I will endeavor to capture the conflicting emotions I felt, and portray the sense of fear and violation more accurately. Especially the after-effects of the crime. The way the emotions return throughout the day. Or the way you drag the event around you like a soiled blanket, and trip over it from time to time. The way you dread the day ending because the dark will return and you won’t feel as safe as you did before. The way you’ll check on your child twice.

Writing can generate empathy. So can reading. I hope the young vandals who went on this senseless spree pick up a book sometime and get a little empathy of their own.

 

I’m revising, revising, revising. I’ll be back next week with three handy and low-tech revision tips that so far seem to be working. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of my desk. It’s under there somewhere. So am I.

My writing metaphors frequently shift, but I find it’s always useful to have a metaphor, something to visualize. Some days it’s construction. I’m building a house, or wiring it, or setting up scaffolding, or simply running through the framework with my hard hat on, screaming as debris falls. Often my metaphors have to do with traveling, running, walking, or hiking. An activity with an end point. (Ideally not the “forest walk” setting on the treadmill, which burns calories but really takes me nowhere, and ideally not a track, which just keeps me circling back to the beginning. When I keep revising Chapter One, or page one, or paragraph one, I know I’m on the track metaphor and need to get off, fast).

I think on this revision of my novel — which is large-scale — I’m hiking. Sometimes I stoop to pick litter off the path. Mostly I move forward at a slow and steady pace. I think there is an end point, and the promise of a vista. I hope it’s not like a mountain I once hiked in the San Juan Islands, where a long, arduous, uphill climb of switchback turns took me to a great view of mountains, Canada . . . and the parking lot, where all the cars stopped after their relaxing drive up the same mountain.

This is the kind of hike that requires a steady pace, some stamina, and good footwear. But today I’m at a rest stop and can see how far I’ve come. I’ve revised to approximately the halfway point. I’m not always sure what “halfway” means — it might change from day to day. It’s an approximate page number of the manuscript, halfway, but it’s also a feeling. I know I have work ahead, but I have done a lot of the heavy work already by improving the beginning, Part One and a bit beyond that. Today I just felt it, strongly. This is halfway.

Like a hiker, I’m conserving energy. In this case, creative energy. Blogging is minimal, and not terribly creative. Other time spent on social media is also extremely limited, just enough to show I’m alive and maintain some contact with friends and the world. My comments are neither witty nor clever. Emails? They’re reduced to telegraphic one-liners. Come to think of it, I’m not even fun to talk to right now. Also, I had to send some thank-you notes the other day, and was thrilled to find a box of cards that simply said the words for me. 

It’s a pretty good rest stop, this one, with nice views both up and down. Fresh water, clean bathrooms, a snack bar. I’m a bit daunted by the distance remaining, and the altitude ahead, but I know I’ve already gotten through the parts of this revision that scared me most. Wish I could say it’s all downhill from here. It’s definitely uphill. But I still hope the rest will go faster. 

I will take the weekend off, read over what I’ve done so far. I’ll adjust my backpack straps and fix the blister on my foot. I will rest, eat, and have some conversations that involve more than one-word utterances. And I’ll hit the trail again first thing Monday. I used to be a binge writer. Now it’s slow and steady, in whatever time I can grab. Next rest stop: approximately 100 pages ahead. I’ll get there.

At what point do you take breaks from a creative project? Does your resting point change if it’s a new work in progress, a revision, or an edit? How do you replenish yourself and find the strength to go on?