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The reason I have trouble with anagrams is that I mentally transform letters into phonemes and then mix up the phonemes in my head instead of the letters. If I could just back up a step, and mix up the letters while they’re still just letters, I’d be a lot better at making new words.

A similar transformation happens to words when I write. Once a scene is written, I see it in my head. In that image, the scene seems like it has actually happened, and the elements of that scene have three dimensions. They have backstories and consequences and are really there to me.

When I need to change something in revision, it can be difficult to imagine making something change or disappear. In my mind, it has happened. It’s there. Pulling it out to replace it seems like an immense task.

When I look at the actual words that made the image, though, there are often only a few. It’s often a simple thing to magic away a sentence or two, and then the image created in my head completely transforms.

The best way I can describe my challenge with revision is that the words on the page are a recipe and the image they create in my head is a finished cake. I look at the cake and wonder, “How am I going to tease one ingredient out of this without ruining the rest of it? It’s impossible!” But of course, revision doesn’t deal with the finished cake. Revision is a change to the recipe. The cake is remade fresh every time the page is read.

Changing recipes is actually easy, just like mixing up letters to make new words is. I just have to remind myself to deal with just letters, or just words, before I’ve baked them into a finished product in my mind.


There is a saying among writers: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.

Sitting is great for writing, terrible for health. I think I gain 20 pounds with each book. This is Not Good. (Good thing I am only on my third book!)

I’m also trying to become more tidy as I go, rather than saving up lots of piles to dismantle in massive efforts every six months or so. I have a theory that becoming more physically active with daily upkeep may help with both tidiness and health.

Will report later…

Sophie Hannah very kindly gave me a great blurb. Among other things, she says that I am an “expert analyst of the darkest parts of the human psyche.” This makes me laugh because I’m actually a pretty smiley, upbeat person. Why do I find it so enjoyable to write/read/watch stories with tragic elements?

Turns out, the ancient Greeks wondered the same thing.

The Greeks loved tragedy. Aristotle theorized that this was because watching a tragic play purged and purified our own strong emotions, calling the experience “catharsis.” This theory has never been enough for me. Here are some other reasons I like writing/reading/watching crime:

1) I love puzzles. The structure of investigation is satisfying on a primal level. I love when a writer sets up a seemingly impossible situation (whether in the who or the how or the why) and then shows me how it actually is possible, if I just shift my assumptions and point-of-view. I love being in the hands of someone who has thought of something that I haven’t.

2) The exaggeration of real life helps me to see things more clearly. In real life, we are jealous and angry and scared. Crime stories exaggerate those feelings to the point of action, and the resulting sharp edges are full of psychological insight.

3) Acknowledging the darker parts of life makes a story more real, more familiar to me. I know lots of people read fiction to escape into something purely light–maybe romance, luxury, success, humor. I understand the appeal, but the fantasy of such stories makes them less effective on me. The best way I can describe this is with a painting:

This is “Route 187 Downeast” by Thomas Paquette. Tom paints brilliant, beautiful landscapes. Of them all, this is my favorite.

Some people have said to me, “Oh, it would be so nice if only he’d left out the telephone poles.” The telephone poles, and especially that yellow plastic strip anchoring the frontmost pole. But I can’t do without them. This one is my favorite because of them. I look at this painting, and I see a real road, a road like many I have driven. This a real, familiar beauty, not a fantasy. And it is beautiful, even with the utility poles. That’s what’s so moving to me.

That a fantasy is beautiful is meaningless; *of course* it’s beautiful. It’s when there is beauty alongside messiness and practicality and even tragedy that I become full of hope.

A description of “good writing” that I really needed to hear right now, from The Lonely One at Absolute Write:

“Oh, and the only thing I think good writing does is maintain its own illusion, play by its own rules, operate as a whole machine rather than disconnected bits and cogs. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Thanks for that!

I’m trying out switching my work-in-progress from first person (“I wrote”) to third person (“She wrote” or “Emily wrote”). I’m in deep third, so the point of view and “voice” remain intact. The pronouns, of course, must change. (I don’t mean to say that that is all that must change, just that that mechanical change is the stage I’m in.)

These are what I have to look out for:
and variations on the above.

But I can’t just find-and-replace. Why?

1) These pronouns are still necessary within dialogue and italicized thought, and shouldn’t in those contexts be touched.
2) They may appear at the beginning of a sentence OR in the middle, and so their replacements might need a capital first letter, or not.
3) Changing the “I” to a proper name or to “she” or “he” in the present tense tends to require changing the form of the associated verb as well. This is painstaking.
4) Changing “I” to a pronoun can lead to ambiguity when there is already someone of the same gender in the scene. When there was “she and I” both speakers were obvious. With two shes having a conversation, the speaker is not clear. So clarity requires considering the pronouns referring to the other character as well.

On the upside, in the course of this enforced careful re-read I’m finding that I really like what I’ve written so far 🙂

PS–If I had known that curly quotes are not recognized by find-and-replace in Open Office, I really would have thought twice about the trouble I took to achieve them. I literally cannot search for any contraction or most possessives because curly apostrophes are not recognized, not even when I copy and paste the whole world into the find box. Grrr…

Woah instead of whoa. Drives me crazy.

Baited breath instead of bated breath. Bait is for fish! “Bated breath” refers to deliberately controlled breathing in a circumstance of high emotion, especially anticipation. (Think “abate.”)

Ball (round bouncy toy) when you mean bawl (cry vigorously), especially in the past tense. “Balled” is not a good image!

Hysterical when you mean hilarious. Hilarious means “really funny.” Hysterical means “out of control and panicked.” Laughter can be hysterical; a joke cannot.

I have reviewed the proofs for The Start of Everything, so my work here is done. That was my last chance to have any effect on the text at all, and only small effect at that. (At proofs stage the text has been laid out so anything that would affect pagination is a no-no.)

These are a couple of things that stood out to me from this stage in the process:

1) I woke up in a dead panic over whether Iceland has duck ponds. See, I research the heck out of things that are significant to the story, but the small things can be overlooked. I have a tiny mention of a character not wanting to go stay with an aunt “in Iceland” who treats her childishly, like taking her to “feed the ducks” as a supposedly persuasive treat. None of these details impact the plot in any way and it could have been any location at all. I chose “Iceland” at complete random and never thought about it again, until I shook my husband awake and quizzed him on whether Iceland does, in fact, have duck ponds. To my relief, it does.

2) Typesetters do a special thing to the letter f when it is near certain other letters, like “i”. Apparently, they need to be shoved closer together to look right, and they become their own little new compound character. This makes searching a PDF very difficult! In fact, you *can’t* search for the word “difficult” in a typeset PDF. It comes up “no match found.” So you have to search for pieces of the word. When I search “cult,” for example, I find many examples of “diffi cult” with a space.

Another problem is that where words have been split at the end of a line (“hy-
phenated”) the PDF sees them as two words. So you would miss any instances of a word that have been split. I kept my last Word doc of the book open beside the typeset PDF and had to search them both.

3) Facebook can be really, really useful.

I had two instances of the word “underpants” that were problematic. The British (and my narrators are British characters) say “pants” to mean underpants, and it ONLY means underpants. Americans (and my publisher and thus my readership is American) mean “trousers” when they say pants. An adult commenting on a teenager’s “pants,” for example, is perfectly fine in American and utterly creepy in British.

In the copyedit, I had given in to “underpants” for simple clarity to the primary audience. But it bugged me. It wasn’t what the characters would say! Facebook to the rescue. I posted my need for character-appropriate alternatives to the word, ones that would be unambiguous to Americans and accurate to the voice of a Brit. By chance I chose a moment that many of my British friends were online, and lively debate ensued.

I also found out that my friend Dave knows a LOT of words that mean “women’s underwear.” 😉

4) My production editor is an amazing, thorough person. Out of the seventy or so small tweaks I made to the first pass pages, she questioned seven of them, and made her case with eloquent and detailed explanations of, to me, obscure points of grammar. I had not before heard the phrase “coordinate adjectives” nor considered the subjunctive v. the indicative in the case of a phrase beginning with “if.” That email was a work of art.

So that’s that–off The Start of Everything goes. I’ve also been sent a draft of the cover, which is exciting(!!), but I can’t share it yet. Now back to work on the next book. I’m 30,000 words in, and much more conscious of coordinate adjectives, underpants, words with “fi” letters pairs, and any references to Iceland.

Finishing a book is like packing a suitcase. You’re pretty sure you’ve remembered everything, but, when you step on that plane, you’re plagued by the thought that you forgot to pack underwear. You won’t know for sure until you get there and it’s too late.

Handing in the final-final edit of a manuscript is daunting.

All right, I admit it: I haven’t made one bit of progress sorting the house this week. Instead, I made a great start to the next book.

Inspiration rarely does what I ask it to do, but so long as it does *something* I’m happy!

Beta readers are people who read a manuscript and give critique. Ten wonderful friends commented on various versions of book 2, The Start of Everything, and they have helped me immeasureably.

I find beta readers to be a good complement to my agent’s and editor’s comments, because they come to the story fresh. They can tell me where they’re surprised or where they’re confused, in a way that those of us who have been working on the story since outline can’t.

I had specific concerns:
1) What do you like? (This always comes first because it softens me up to better hear criticism 😉
2) Do I get any British English wrong?
3) Do I get anything about Cambridge city or Cambridge University wrong?
4) I have reorganized the order of narrators. Is there anywhere I assume information not yet given, or repeat information as if for the first time?
5) I jump around in time a lot. At any point are you unsure of when a scene takes place?
6) At any point do you just stop for a moment out of confusion or ambiguity?
7) What does the title mean to you?
8 ) Who is your favorite of the five narrators?

I aggregated their comments and all together got more than thirty single-spaced pages of comments. Fantastic. Most of the comments were repeats, as one would expect. The agreement of so many different points of view was reassuring. Overall, they enjoyed the manuscript, many of them more than The Whole World, which makes me very, very happy.

These were the characters of their critiques:

Derek is a Cambridge stay-at-home dad, married to one of my husband’s university friends. He worked from a printed ms marking Americanisms and typos directly on the page. He is especially valuable because he has never been outside the UK and so is ultra-sensitive to American-origin words that some Brits are starting to use, but which aren’t strictly “British.” (Unlike my husband, who is a Cambridge local but lived in the States for eight years, is a US citizen, and currently works with Americans. His sense of the “British way to say something” has become as compromised as my own.)

Simon is a Cambridge mathematician I know from church. He created two perfectly ordered lists: one of typos and word choice comments, one of university/mathematical comments. Each one referenced page number and line number. Do I need to repeat that he’s a mathematician? His precision delights me.

Rachel works at our church and is Simon’s wife. Like Derek, she worked off a printed ms marking Americanisms and typos on the page.

Amy is a Cambridge maths alumna and old friend of my husband’s. She’s also an experienced beta reader, having read for a friend who went on to win the Orange Prize! She had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Renee is a midwest college prof (or, as they would say here, “University lecturer”) and non-fiction author. Years ago she married a college friend of mine, and we started emailing each other because she liked the extremely personal poetry I wrote back in the day. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person exactly once, but it was enough to know how much we like each other. She had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Eva is a Rhode Island “pizza mogul” and architecture student. Our older brothers were best friends, which put us in each other’s lives since we were very small. She was the only one to catch a certain small but profound error in The Whole World before it was printed, for which I’m mightily grateful. For The Start of Everything, she had overall story comments that hit key plot points.

Mimi is a New Jersey singer/songwriter now venturing into YA fiction, and has the fabulous sense of rhythm and poetic word choice you would expect. She produced a wondeful stream-of-consciousness commentary as she read, referencing page numbers and quotes. She has a gift for noticing repeat usage of standout words, and where reordering a sentence or adding a beat would improve clarity and impact.

Margaret is my cousin, has a degree in English and used to work at Little/Brown. She read the ms while snowed in in her sixteenth-century New England farmhouse.

Two more weighed in later, on my revisions:

Susan is a fellow American here in Cambridge, and did a “Brit-pick” for me (that’s a “nitpick” for Britishness). It may seem counterintuitive to have an American do it, but that can actually make the differences stand out more, because it’s something she is very aware of.

Sophie is a fellow psychological suspense author, and we’ve started to critique one another’s drafts. We met in the Botanic Garden on one of the best days of spring so far this year, and had a lovely time.

Just reading a 90k word ms is no small commitment. Putting your reaction into helpful words on top of that takes significant effort. I’m lucky to have such insightful, talented people in my life, and grateful for their contribution to the telling of this story.

Thanks, friends!

From “Envoy” by Billy Collins, a message to his just-published book:

"stay out as late as you like,
don't bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can."