Raiders of a Lost (Character) Arc in the Temple of Editing

Over a year ago I wrote a post on the “Quagmire of Editing.” In that post I said:

“On the bright side, the rewriting is a lot quicker than writing the first draft. Ha ha! Just kidding.”

At the time I didn’t realize the gravity of those words, as I took feedback from beta-readers on the first draft of my next novel. I took their input, made some changes and handed off to a professional editor. And everything was fine… just fine. But, she said (and I agreed), "This could be even better."

Like a piece of peeling paint, one little change can start chain reaction, and soon you’re remodeling the entire house, putting in a pool, and wondering if taking out the black porcelain urinal that the previous owner put in was a mistake. I’ve now reached the point where editing this thing has taken longer than writing the first draft. Yes, my life has had a few distractions - but find me a writer who doesn’t have distractions and I’ll say don’t go near that cabin in the woods.

See, there was this one character, who had a lot of potential to be interesting, deep, likable, and compelling. And that had been my intention when I wrote her. In the outline, she was smart, independent, and was an even match - in fact - far more capable than my protagonist. She was like Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. A strong female who is dealt a bad hand because she comes into contact with the male lead.

But in the writing process I thought I had a stroke of genius. I decided to change her up a little. She’d be a sort of "mole" in the mix, a double agent… she’d be even more complex. Like a James Bond girl. Right?

Wrong. 

In the execution of these unplanned, un-outlined, unscripted, uncharacteristic changes, I hadn’t written a better Marion. I ended up with a one-dimensional Willie Scott (aka “Doll”) from Temple of Doom, pouring perfume on elephants and fretting about jewelry. Not even marrying Steven Spielberg could save that career. (Guess who won’t be producing the movie version of my next novel.) 

Reading back over her, she was crying all the time - which I think was my effort to give her emotional depth. It was to the point that once, when her eyes welled up with tears - again - my editor wrote in the margins: “This is the fifteenth instance of a woman crying… 87.6 percent of the female lead’s scenes.” And I can confirm that those weren’t hyperbolic estimates - she actually counted. 

Faced with rewriting a major character and changing an unplanned major plot-line, I decided that a scene or two in the middle needed to be cut. But, like a student hairstylist, I just kept finding more things to cut and change. Pretty soon, 10,000 words, or about 15% in the middle of my book (and probably a month’s worth of writing) was text impaled by a dreaded "strikethrough" line. Now I’ve got new characters, a different timeline, and these things have got to connect at both ends. 

This what I get for deviating from the original outline. Ultimately, this character is turning out to be more interesting and the book will be far better for it.  

A good rule to live by as your story develops is to keep asking the questions, “What is the character’s motivation?” and “Is their behavior true to that motivation?” These aren’t just things to keep just in the back of your mind… these are part of the story. This is what book clubs will discuss as they parse out elements of your story that you never even considered. I remember in college I wrote a short story about a shop owner in a small desert town whose son gets killed in World War II. I think his last name was O’Connor. In discussing our stories in class, my professor keyed on his Irish-ness, and how he was probably an immigrant who was discriminated against. Frankly, I just gave him a name. As my professor complimented me on this detail, but wanted more out of it, I nodded as if it were intentional. My readers had the chance to take so much more out of the character, but I’d missed the opportunity.

For me, editing my second novel has been as much, if not more of a learning experience than publishing my first novel. I started this book far more organized than I did the last (not to mention a prior, untitled tome that I never bothered to publish.) But now as I think I near its completion, I realize the many lessons I will take in to writing my third book. These lessons can only be learned by doing. If you are intimidated by the thought of sitting down and writing something good, just keep in mind that most people never write anything good, until they’ve written something bad first. So get out there are write something terrible!  

Jonathan Kile's adventure thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available in print or FREE for Kindle. The audio version is available by coming to his house and having him read it to you. The sequel, The Napoleon Bloom, will be out in 2017. He promises. Jonathan gets his email at [email protected].

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