Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Digging for the Magic


Terry Shames here, answering our question of the week. Have you reread any of your books since they were published? Do you think you have improved as a writer? 

 I haven’t read any of my published books in their entirety, although I read them at least a thousand times when I was editing (okay, I exaggerate, but it seemed like a thousand). But I have read chunks of them. I usually have one of two responses: “Wow, this isn’t bad,” or “Wow, how did this even get published?”
There’s more than one reason I don’t read them all the way through. First, having read them so many times, I feel like I remember every word. It turns out that isn’t true. 

I recently was invited to a book club that had just read my first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill. They didn’t want me to give a talk; they wanted to quiz me. And quiz me they did! About halfway through the hour I spent with them I realized there were many things I didn’t remember at all. They wanted to know the psychology behind some characters’ actions. It seemed ungrateful for me to say, “How the hell do I know? I can’t even remember the scene you’re talking about.” So I tried to wing it. Of course, there’s always the old, “What do YOU think was the psychology?” That at least gave me something to swing off of. 

Other reasons I haven’t read them in their entirety? It’s complicated. My agent recently suggested that I read all of the books again to remind myself of what I’ve written. Shudder. I don’t want to do that because even in small doses, I intimidate myself. I always worry that I’ll never be able to come up with the clever lines, the interesting characters, and the plots that seemed to flow so easily in the first books. It all seemed to happen by the magic of the sub-conscious. What if my sub-conscious decides it has had enough and it prefers to go to the beach? 

Oddly, as a character, Samuel Craddock, the protagonist of the series, always seems within reach for me. It’s all the other characters and the plots that seem slippery. My worry about “losing traction” with them became a self-fulfilling prophecy last year (I know, I know, you can’t judge yourself by Covid Time, but still…). I wrote a Samuel Craddock book that belly-flopped. Big time. My writers group hated it, my agent hated it, and I hated it. Time to jettison it and move on. When I sat down to start over, I was able to salvage one character from it. Eventually, I got in the groove, but it was touch and go for a while. 

The thing that always surprises me when I’m reading the manuscripts is the little moments of humor. I’ve been known to laugh out loud when reading a section. And humor, I’ve found, is something that can’t be forced. It seems to pop up most when I’m deeply immersed in the characters’ lives. 

 As to whether I’ve improved as a writer, I think I’ve improved in terms of craft. I know how the arc of a story works. I can settle into a pace easily. I recognize if the plot starts to veer off course--unlike book three, where I had to write the whole thing before I realized I’d done that. I now recognize if a character needs pumping up (or dialing back, not to mix metaphors). I’ve become familiar enough with my process to know that about 20,000 words in, I need to step back and figure out where I’m going. And I’ve learned the most valuable lesson for me—when something isn’t working, the devil is in the details. I need to settle my characters more firmly into their setting; look at things from their points of view; dig deeper into their relationships with each other; their goals, their fears, what makes them unique. It’s all part of what in the end makes the “magic” happen. 

 But there is still that indefinable “something” that bubbles up from deep inside and makes the book begin to take shape. If I thought rereading my books would help me identify and replicate that, I’d probably do it.

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