Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Second Thought, Let Me Change That... from James W. Ziskin

What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?

From Jim

That was supposed to be my topic today. But since three cool things happened to the 7 Criminal Minds this week, I’ve decided to go rogue and write about something else.

First, huge congratulations to our own Catriona McPherson. Her Scot & Soda was named a finalist for the Lefty for Best Humorous Novel, and her Strangers at the Gate was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Second, our Abir Mukherjee’s Smoke and Ashes is a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Congratulations to both of you! You make us very proud.

Third, the other news this week involves me. And since it’s my turn, I’m jolly well going to crow about it. It’s not all that often that you have a book come out, after all. For me, it’s usually about once a year. In the case of my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone, it took about eighteen months. So its book birthday this past Tuesday is cause to celebrate. (My lovely wife organized this tableau for me.)

It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Florence to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, however, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has been fished out of the river, quite dead. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.

This book was different from my others in several ways. Location for one, and plot elements for another. I won’t go into those because I don’t want to provide any spoilers. The greatest difference, however, is that I wrote it without an outline. I’ve always plotted out my books before writing them, but this time I didn’t. And I paid the price. There was a lot of fixing on the back end instead of the front. The result was good, I hope, but it was difficult and stressful. I vowed never to “pants it” again.

The arduous process of revision came back to me when I was thinking about this post, and I realized it would be instructive to look at my earliest drafts of the book. I save my versions, numbered sequentially, every two days or so. It’s a good practice for avoiding lost data. With regular version-ups, I protect myself from losing any more than a day or two of work at most. And, if I change my mind about a passage I’ve deleted, I can go back and recover it. Or, if I want to write a blog post on my writing process, I can do so easily.

This is the opening of the book as I first wrote it two years ago.

Note the highlighted words in gray. That indicates that I’ve attached notes to these words. The first note, for Turn to Stone, merely states that this is Ellie Stone #7. I inserted this information for the benefit of the editor, who may or may not have been familiar with the other books in the series. An overabundance of caution. The second highlighted term—polizia municipale—was for me. I wrote this paragraph on an airplane and had no Internet access for research. I wanted to be sure that this was the appropriate police division to handle a drowning in Florence. Good thing I flagged this, as the municipal police in Italy was the wrong arm of the law. Had Bondinelli parked his car in the wrong place, the polizia municipale would have been the ticket. But in cases of murder or death, it’s the polizia di stato who’s on the case. Of course I changed this.

I quite liked the the idea of leading with the first nights, and I regretted having to delete it. From a rhetorical point of view, it was catchy. And a little sexy. But, having started without an outline, I ran into trouble immediately. As the next paragraph indicates, I had to go backward in time to tell how Ellie had come to be in Italy in the first place. It was awkward. And I didn’t want to lead with buzzing mosquitoes anyway. Somewhat off-putting. There was always time for that later. I also realized that August was not right for the story. Italians go on vacation in August. No one would schedule an academic symposium in August. So I postponed the action of the story to late September when school was back in session. Despite these changes, I managed to salvage much of this passage, but I put it later in the book.

And here is the opening as it appears in the final version of the book.

I decided to start with Ellie boarding the plane for Italy. This afforded me the opportunity to inject some period details—Pan Am, 707s, smoking on planes—and make clear that she was heading to Italy. No need to to jump backward and forward in time. Ellie’s characteristic preamble, the short bit that introduces the theme of the book, is a meditation on language and names. It replaced the “first three nights” paragraph. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’ve included these preambles starting with book 4, Heart of Stone, and they’ve become a staple for me. And, by the way, if the reader is paying attention, they usually provide a clue to the resolution of the mystery...

So for this book birthday week, I’ve enjoyed looking in the rearview mirror at the creative process of Turn to Stone. There were countless other revisions of the book, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the earliest version. It’s always good to take stock and consider where you went wrong and how things might be better handled next time. Still I fear—despite my resolutions to the contrary—that I might again work without a net and “pants it” on some future book. The results for Turn to Stone, after all, worked out well.

By the way, happy ninetieth birthday, Dad.


Paul D. Marks said...

Congratulations on your new book, Jim! And to Abir and Catrionia on your award noms!

James Ziskin said...

Thanks, Paul!

Brenda Chapman said...

Congratulations on your latest release, Jim! Thanks for sharing some of your writing process - very interesting to see how the opening passage evolved. Also congrats to Abir and Catriona on your award nominations. So much to celebrate!

Ann said...

Kudos, Jim.

And how is this book different from all the others?

I'm in the process of reading it, as you know, learning new English words and a whole bunch of Italian phrases. STYX & STONE has always been my favorite. This one may surpass it. I think I like the pantser style.

Remind me to tell you about my one trip to Florence sometime. xox

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Congratulations, Jim – and to Catriona and Abir as well.

Susan C Shea said...

There's something about the first version of the opening of novels that makes them especially vulnerable to deep revisions or dropping. I always growl when I hear another writer say, blithely, I just knew what the first line would be and the book flowed after that. Grrr...says one who has never been able to say that! Thanks for sharing.