Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

Author

Finally, some novel-related news to post . . . I have a shiny new title! The novel formerly known as The Frame Game is now called TOKYO HEIST. So different! It will take me a little while to get used to the change. I keep looking at the new title like it’s my new sports car sitting in the driveway. (Okay, I don’t have a new sports car in the driveway. Or even an old one. I’m just saying).

It’s funny how things evolve. I’m sure I would never have sat down, years ago, penned TOKYO HEIST on a title page, and written a novel accordingly. You see, once upon a time, this was a relatively quiet book, full of descriptions of art and contemplative moments. Through years of revision, I gradually learned how to turn up the volume where it needed to be turned up. I found more opportunities for action and excitement, while still being true to the characters and the story’s emotional core. And so, in the book’s current form, the title feels apt. Still, it is strange to let go of a title I used for nearly six years.

Do you begin projects with a title in mind? Does your title evolve with your story? Do you find it easy or agonizing to come up with a title?

I’m coming up for air! I’ve missed blogging, but for the past couple of weeks I have been focused on the editorial letter I received from my publisher, and my impending revision of The Frame Game. After three passes through the manuscript and thirty pages of brainstorming and scrawled notes, the revision process is beginning to feel slightly less daunting. Slightly. Tomorrow I’ll be in New York, and I’ll actually get to meet with my team at Viking and discuss some ideas in person.

Cutting is the big issue. As I prepare for my flight tomorrow morning, I realize my manuscript — bursting with hot pink post-it notes, scrawled comments, and little sticky tags — takes up most of my bag. I may actually have to buy it a seat. I may have to declare it at security as potentially hazardous material. I now completely accept that this manuscript is too unwieldy and needs to shed some weight.

When I first got the editorial letter, I was slightly paralyzed. But I spent a lot of time with the manuscript, trying to see it through my editors’ eyes, and giving serious consideration to all of their suggestions and concerns. I broke through my initial paralysis by having the voice of my main character respond, in writing, to each of their points. While no one will ever see those notes, this helped me get back into my character’s mindset and voice, and to think about which suggestions felt natural to implement and which felt more difficult. It also helped to remove me, the author, from the equation, in a sense. The comments and responses became about the book, not me.

Now I’m mostly feeling energized and excited. I’m planning to hit the desk first thing Monday morning, to start revising in earnest, and to take this novel to the next level. I’m so thrilled to have a supportive team who want the best for the book! Revising with coaches, and cheerleaders in the grandstands, feels like a whole different game now. Revising with a visible endpoint this time — publication, instead of endless uncertainty — is incredibly motivating. 

So I’m gearing up to revise my novel (THE FRAME GAME, the one to be published). I have been asked, among other things, to cut the word count by quite a bit. I recognize I have a tendency to over-complicate, so I’m immensely grateful for editorial advice at this stage. And I agree some verbiage has to go. I know I can be excessive. (Witness the essay-like length of most of my blog entries here!) (Witness the over-explanation in this paragraph alone!)

When I used to teach writing, I found that most writers tend to overwrite, like me, or to underwrite. The grass is always greener, I guess. Underwriters, hearing my plight, assure me that at least cutting is easier — I don’t often have much to do in the way of fleshing out scenes or writing all new ones. Yet I envy the economy with which some of my fellow scribes seem to write. I would love to be told to deepen a scene or to add more details!

In the spirit of slashing excess verbiage, I’m keeping today’s blog entry incredibly short. (Excess — incredibly — cut those modifiers!) I’m gearing up for a major revision, gathering my strength, conserving my words.

So as a substitute for any real advice today, I’m going to share a Japanese martial arts performance video. No, I don’t think I’m giving up taiko drumming to pursue sword dancing anytime soon. However, if you watch this performance while thinking of the revision process — and the plight of the writer who needs to slash words — this can be an inspiring image. It inspired me, anyway!

Are you an underwriter or an overwriter? How do you gear up for or begin a major revision? What techniques have you found to help you cut words, paragraphs, or pages?

Lately I’ve been diving into old journals I kept while traveling and living in another country. I’m setting a good portion of my novel-in-progress in that locale, so I am grateful for the detailed records I kept. While I experienced a number of exciting, dramatic events there (including being in city bus that drove into a bank window, and hitchhiking to the ocean with friends on the back of a Coca-Cola delivery truck), it is the most mundane details that now grab my attention. What I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where I shopped for groceries. What the mornings smelled like. The wild pointsetta trees that burst into red blooms in plazas, like little explosions of Christmas. And the interesting characters who made cameo appearances in my day-to-day life: a peace-loving military official whom I used to tutor, and a business executive who studied jujitsu and farmed ostriches. These are the kinds of details I can comb through now to help bring a story to life.

Surprisingly less useful to me now: profound insights I had about Life at the time. Whining about culture shock, bureaucracy, and general frustrations. Sights and experiences that blew me away, described in glowing abstractions. Actually, the whole narrative of my journeys to this country — two visits and a nine-month stint working there — are almost completely useless to me as a fiction writer.

I write a lot of fiction based on my travel experiences, perhaps as homages to the countries I’ve loved. The end result is always quite different from what I actually experienced. It’s tempting to mine my travel journals for the story itself. I often think, reaching for an old journal: Hey, this trip had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Lots of stuff happened! I can write about it!  The story’s practically already written!

But that’s dangerous thinking. Most of us, when we travel, do not have a neat narrative arc to our journeys. The travel journal typically records highs and lows, twists and turns, that are not necessarily compelling as a story or novel. For example, browsing through a journal of a 12-day trip to Turkey, I see that I experienced the following high and low points: a tumble down a flight of marble stairs, a deeply spiritual experience in a mosque, a persistent foot infection, the most heavenly breakfast, three nights in a cave, a brief spat with my husband (which involved an ice cream cone being flung out a car window at high speed, for reasons that now elude me), a breathtaking trek through village ruins led by an eight-year-old boy (and goat), and thugs attempting to break into our car and lure us into a jewelry store. All fascinating stuff that still makes my heart beat faster when I read it. Yet using the travelogue as the basis for a story or a book requires a lot of work. The material must be sifted through and reshaped, and much of it rejected altogether.

Another danger of relying too heavily on travel journals is the temptation to bend the story to follow events from the journal, or to let geography dictate the plot. In my forthcoming novel The Frame Game, I spent years, and about fifty pages, agonizing over how to get my heroines to a remote Japanese mountain village where they could stay in an ancient thatch-roof house where silkworms were once farmed. Cool place, right? I thought so. Simply because I had traveled there, and been blown away by the village and these houses, and devoted pages and pages of my journal to this place.

It was a huge revelation when one day I realized: there is no earthly reason for these girls to go to this village or to the silkworm houses! My traveler’s memory had been insisting on this destination, but the story resisted it. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done right were they already were.

In revisiting my old travel journals, then, it helps to try to read them through my main character’s lens. What would my character — not me — notice or take away from these experiences? What would my character  be interested in? Do the places, events, and details I recorded for posterity actually serve the story? If I want to include some events, what happens if I present them in a different order? Can I imagine a totally different premise or outcome than what I journaled? What if they happened to a person who is very different from myself?