Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Editing of Murder at the Book Group

 by Maggie King

Writing is rewriting … is it ever! I started cutting a swath through Murder at the Book Group long before I let anyone beyond my circle of friends and local writers see my manuscript. I got 108,000 words down to 102,000, kicking and screaming all the way. But cozy mysteries, especially ones penned by new authors, were expected to hover around 92,000 words.

Yikes! Ten thousand words … what more could I cut? There was no question about it, I had to be ruthless. I enlisted my even more ruthless friend Marcia to help. Between us we reached the goal of 92,000. It wasn’t even that hard once I donned my ruthless hat. I killed darlings by the dozens (“Kill your darlings” is an expression attributed to William Faulkner and repeated constantly by writing professionals ever since).

Two characters had significant scenes that got whittled down to bit parts; one character was nasty as all get out but as a bit player became quite pleasant. She’ll be a recurring character throughout the series.

When my editor, Nancy (not her real name), came on the scene, she loved Murder at the Book Group. Loved it. Still, she had a few suggestions.

Nancy: “I’d like to work on the snarky tone a little more here. I think it’s fine for other people in the book group to be unsympathetic, negative or petty, but our heroine should be the nice one in the group, the one we root for. Many times she comments on her friends’ appearances or makes snarky asides about their lives that come off as too mean.”

Me: Some of that snark was too good to cut but Nancy gave me a way to keep it … I just gave it to the other characters. And my heroine Hazel Rose came up smelling like, well, a rose!

Nancy: “Let’s play up the romance a bit more.”

Me: Great suggestion. After all, when Hazel isn’t hunting down killers she’s an aspiring writer of Baby Boomer romances. So I set Hazel and her inamorato on a more romantic course than before. After all, she needs inspiration for her writing.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. I pointed out that I was trying for realism—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with a salty vocabulary. But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers don’t like swearing. And then there was all that sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that Hazel Rose is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark cozy. The sex I write about occurs off stage (off page?) and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

But Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I do want to cultivate loyal and enthusiastic readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language. So I kept the sex, ditched the cursing, and came up with euphemisms that didn’t dilute the dialog of my more colorful characters. I even got to keep the “okay” swear words.

There was more: “The ending is good, but it needs some work …” “So and so needs more motivation to do such and such …” “This one needs to show more emotion.”

With Nancy’s help Murder at the Book Group blossomed into a fabulous story and Hazel Rose into an appealing heroine (IMHO).

Have the guidelines of your genre restricted or liberated your writing? Have you ever had to cut a massive opus to a more manageable size? What did you do with your outtakes?  What process did you use?

One night at a book group in Richmond, Virginia, mystery author Carlene Arness dies after drinking cyanide-spiked tea. Despite a suicide note, Carlene’s friend Hazel Rose is skeptical. Suicide doesn’t fit with what she knows of Carlene who is, incidentally, Hazel’s ex-husband’s current wife. Did Carlene die by her own hand or someone else’s? Who had a motive? When Hazel seeks answers to these questions she finds no shortage of motives as she unearths a past that Carlene took great pains to hide. Hazel’s investigation leads to a confrontation with Carlene’s killer, who is also fiercely protecting a past … and won’t stop at one murder. 

Maggie King's debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, came out December 2, 2014 from Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” to the Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for Mysteries. Maggie has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. Visit her at:


Jenny Milchman said...

Thanks for sharing so much of your process! Fascinating, the cozy distinctions. Best of luck with your release...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jenny. It's all so very exciting!