Wednesday, January 23, 2019

NO EXIT (from rewrites): Guest Post by Taylor Adams

NO EXIT (from rewrites)

Writing a book is a long, strange, complicated process. Some days are euphoric. Some are dismal treks. Most fall somewhere in the middle. This writing process won’t work for everyone (heck, it doesn’t even always work for me) – but here is how I wrote my novel NO EXIT, over the course of roughly 18 months and 1.5 million gallons of coffee.


During time I probably should have been focusing on my day job, I combined various story elements into a mixture that excited me enough to believe in the project. In this case, it was “highway rest stop” plus “blizzard” plus “kidnapped child in an animal crate” plus “what would you do?” I was admittedly pretty unsure if the premise could sustain a full-length novel at first.


For a few weeks or even months, I regurgitated ideas, sequences, and subplots to fill the story out in an “outline” format, which involved tons of bullet points, abbreviations, and sentence fragments. Outlines are a critical step because they allow me to get my brain around the narrative’s basic shape. I like to work on it until I have about five pages (give or take), and at that stage, I’m fairly thrilled about the story’s potential, ready to write it, and overall, quite optimistic.


Wherein all of that optimism is obliterated like an insect against the windshield of reality. Writing a first draft sucks. The key – for me – is to not lose momentum. Don’t look back. Don’t revise (yet). Just write that awful thing all the way to its bitter, poorly-judged end. It’s important to just get something down on paper, so you have a lump of clay to work with. In my case, after two-ish months of my obligatory 1,000 words a day, I had a NO EXIT first draft that was about 99% crap, and 1% OK.


The second-worst part of the process. But for the second draft – and every draft after – I always start with a fresh Word document and rewrite every word from page one. Often, I’ll have two Word docs open on my laptop – the prior draft, and the current draft. I do this because it forces me to think (and rethink) about every single word. As tempting as they can be, Word’s copy-paste commands are my mortal enemy, because nothing I write is ever good enough in its first few iterations. But draft by draft, as I run the story through this rewriting filter, it grows steadily, incrementally better.

5) DRAFTS 3-7

Somewhere, many months into the process, a beautiful tipping point occurs. I like to think it’s the exact moment when the book transitions from 51% crap and 49% OK to become 49% crap and 51% OK. It’s genuinely thrilling to see the story that I’ve envisioned months ago finally take form. It keeps me going.


Here’s where it gets fun. Once I’ve achieved a workable framework of a functioning story, I’m able to layer in the flourishes. I can really hone the characters, the dialogue, the small beats, and make the big ones hit harder (this is also the part of the process where I actually feel like a writer and not a captive word processor). Every day, I’m able to solve a new problem, or add a nifty new spin to a scene. With NO EXIT, much of this time was spent sharpening the action beats, fleshing out the atmospheric details of the rest stop, and adding new elements of uncertainty and tension. Key character beats, such as Darby’s text messages to her mother, also came in here – not to mention a fair bit of logic fixes (it took months to make the spatial geography of a certain plot twist work, around page 200 – but what a blissful eureka moment that was).


Beta readers are invaluable for locating all of the things in my blind spots. From test reads of NO EXIT, I learned about a multitude of pacing issues in the novel’s first half and ended up cutting a full 5 pages of bloat from the first chapter alone. This step is also the best way test how readers will respond emotionally to the characters, so I had plenty of guidance in making Darby’s plight sympathetic and her errors forgivable (nothing is worse than a thriller protagonist who annoys the reader!). Also… apparently, I’m guilty of heinously overusing the word “chatter.”

At the end of this grueling process… well, there’s still a lot of work to do. NO EXIT underwent numerous edits and copyedits, but with every pass through the eyes of people more experienced and detail-oriented than I, it emerged a better and more polished piece of storytelling.

Certainly, this is hard stuff, particularly during the early drafts when story lacks shape and direction. My advice: if you’re dying to tell your story, work on it every hour you can spare. Keep writing and rewriting. Every day. No excuses.

It’s worth it.

Taylor Adams graduated from Eastern Washington University with the prestigious Edmund G. Yarwood Award. His directorial work has screened at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival. He lives in Washington State.

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