Rewriting “Murder in the Fifth” took self-discipline. Cut, cut, cut and add essential points back into established scenes for more depth. The following scene from the Fiesta Hermosa Beer Garden
[START AT THE BEGINNING] After completing the Action Rewrite and the Character Rewrite, I was confident that “Murder in the Fifth” was the story I intended to tell. Yet, there
[START AT THE BEGINNING] I love the character rewrite. It’s an opportunity to delve more deeply into the life of each character and to clarify their voice. Characters not only
[START AT THE BEGINNING] Before I returned to the draft of “Murder in the Fifth”, I put my character descriptions, my story notes, and my short outline in an archive
“Murder in the Fifth” is the first novel I wrote from concept through publication since I became a full-time author at the end of 2013. In the process, I developed
“Murder in the Fifth” is the first novel I wrote from concept through publication since I became a full-time author at the end of 2013. In the process, I developed my rewriting routine into a defined method. This murder mystery was fun to write and this three-step rewriting practice improved the final story.
Life in Hermosa Beach, California inspired “Murder in the Fifth”. The post-graduate, pre-family, single, beach crowd is very casual about their dating habits. The beach lifestyle encourages an active singles scene, where individuals seek a deeper connection. It is the perfect neighborhood for a crime of passion. I wondered, “What would it take for one of these guys to murder one of their friends?”
After jotting down a few ideas for a murder mystery in Hermosa Beach, I made a short outline. Then I began writing the first draft.
I like to break up my daily writing sessions with reading and research. Readers of murder mysteries have certain expectations. For example, I read “Nothing to Lose” by Lee Child (a.k.a. Jim Grant). The main character, Jack Reacher, is a lone wolf vigilante solving murders that he happens upon in his solitary travels. I made notes about what I personally enjoyed or disliked about each book. I decided that I did not want either a detective or a vigilante to be the protagonist. My interests lie in human interactions among friends more than in one man’s skill in finding a balance between right and wrong.
Once the draft of “Murder in the Fifth” was complete, I set it aside. I began work on my next project. I also read “Revising Fiction, A Handbook for Writers, 185 Practical Techniques for Improving Your Story or Novel” by David Madden. (This “Revising Fiction” book appears to be out of print.) After spending a month away from the draft, I was detached from the story enough to review it with a critical perspective.
To improve the story and my writing, I committed to three distinct rewrites. With each, I evaluated the novel from different perspectives. The perspectives I chose for “Murder in the Fifth” included:
- The Action Rewrite. Evaluate the order of the events. Tell the events of the story in a way that logically reveals the details and steadily increases the reader’s interest. (Follow the link at the end of this article to go to this post now.)
- The Character Rewrite. Focus on the details of character development as well as syntax. Patterns in both descriptions and dialogue expand each personality. (Click here to read this post.)
- The English Rewrite. Proofread for spelling and punctuation errors. Pay attention to grammar choices. Be consistent when straying from standard rules of English. Strive to make the writing an “easy read”. (Return after July 26th to read this post.)
Each rewrite step deserves in-depth consideration. Please continue to read the separate posts on “The Action Rewrite,” “The Character Rewrite,” and “The English Rewrite.”
Continue reading this post by clicking here to go to “The Action Rewrite“.
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Rewriting “Murder in the Fifth” took self-discipline. Cut, cut, cut and add essential points back into established scenes for more depth. The following scene from the Fiesta Hermosa Beer Garden was one of my favorites. However, since it didn’t really serve the storyline, I cut it.
Hopefully, you enjoy the following scene.
Nate and Lauren arrived at the beer garden before Faith and Bill. Lauren liked to be on time. Nate was not surprised that Bill was late. Bill and Faith ran on their own schedule that was usually twenty minutes behind everyone else.
Fiesta Hermosa, the semi-annual street fair held over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, is predictable. There are booths where arts and crafts are sold. There are the “End of the World” extremists who hand out Christian tracts to anyone who walks by. Two stages provide live music. A family oriented stage is at the end of the pier. The other stage is in the beer garden. It caters to the over twenty-one crowd. There is a food court beside the beer garden and kiddie rides including a giant slide are beside the food court.
Completing the rural feeling, a small petting zoo is a short walk away from the beer garden on the opposite side of Pier Plaza. Fiesta Hermosa is small town fun on the ocean’s edge of the third largest city in the United States.
The beer garden is a charity fundraiser. Local youth programs benefit from the profits on beer sales. It was the first time that either Nate or Lauren visited the beer garden. Nate purchased four drink tickets. After getting drafts from volunteer bartenders, Lauren and Nate sat on white plastic patio furniture. The seats were flimsy. The chairs barely stood up to the weight of an adult. “No doubt this cheap shit is imported from China,” Nate thought to himself. Once he felt that the chair would not collapse, he smiled at Lauren and raised his beer.
She raised her beer to meet his. “To us and a fun day,” Nate toasted.
“To us,” Lauren replied.
A band was tuning up on the stage in front of them. The first song was something vaguely familiar. Nate thought that maybe it was the theme song of an old movie. The band was described as a seventies cover band. By the third song in a row that neither Nate nor Lauren recognized, they were getting bored.
Nate tapped Lauren on the wrist to get her attention. “I thought they meant songs from the 1970s, not songs for people in their seventies.”
Lauren smiled. Nate wasn’t certain that she heard him over the loud music. He took out his phone and snapped a picture of Lauren. She pushed his arm.
“That better be a good one.”
Nate looked at his phone to check for messages. There were no texts. Lauren spread another layer of gloss on her lips.
A few couples danced in front of the stage. One woman, dancing by herself, attracted the attention of the crowd. She moved quickly and smoothly. She clearly studied dance yet her body was aging, perhaps she was in her forties. When she stopped to take a breath, she looked directly at Nate and Lauren.
“My God,” Lauren gasped with surprise.
“I know,” Nate observed. “I thought she was younger. Even all that surgery can’t hide the age of her face.”
“She must be nearly eighty,” Lauren didn’t know what else to say.
“But look at those moves,” Nate chuckled.
The woman’s face had been stretched multiple times by plastic surgery. Her nose appeared nearly flat and the corners of her mouth permanently stretched from cheek bone to cheek bone. She was an obscene caricature of her former beauty.
“Add bright makeup to that look, and she is just scary,” Nate said. He looked at Lauren. “I hope you won’t ever feel compelled to get that sort of beauty treatment.”
“Not me,” Lauren said. “Even the idea of injecting fat or botox to lift the cheekbones or plump my butt, scares me.”
“Good.” Nate looked at his phone again. When he looked up from the screen, the walled-off garden area was getting crowded. Most of the crowd was at least twice their age.
“Well,” Nate looked at Lauren and raised his eyebrows. “This is fun.”
“NOT!” Lauren said loudly. They both laughed.
“Seems like something started by an older generation for our parents.”
“I’m not sure that the music is even aimed at our parents. I haven’t recognized a single song yet,” Lauren replied.
“Seventies rock according to the band’s description. But clearly, not the top rock songs of that decade. Let me text Bill. If he and Faith are not entering the beer garden now, we’ll finish our beers and meet them on the Pier. There’s another stage there. That band covers more recent tunes. We can’t drink beer there, but it sounds more fun.”
Nate tapped out the messages on his phone, while Lauren finished the rest of her beer. After a couple of texts, Nate nodded to Lauren and said, “They’ll meet us near the band on the pier. Bill says they are almost there.”
“Great.” Lauren stood up.
Nate also stood. As a couple approached to take their seats, Nate handed them his two extra drink tickets.
“Enjoy a draft on us!”
After completing the Action Rewrite and the Character Rewrite, I was confident that “Murder in the Fifth” was the story I intended to tell. Yet, there was still one more rewrite that had to be done. Once the storyline was strengthened; once the characters were true individuals and interesting; then the English language had to be considered.
For me, the key to a successful English rewrite was to read the story aloud. Do the characters sound right? Does the narrative flow when read aloud? Are both the style, and the rhythm engaging?
I decided to follow the standard rules of punctuation, even in dialogue. However, I consciously chose not follow textbook verb conjugations. I deleted many complex verb tenses, during the English Rewrite.
For me, the character actions like “could have enjoyed,” “should have enjoyed,” “might have enjoyed,” “would have enjoyed” – all complex variations boil down into either the character enjoyed or he did not enjoy. The “could, should, might and would” are instead addressed with follow up details that suggest the meanings of those complex verb conjugations without the extra baggage. For example:
“If she had attended the dance with him, he could have enjoyed the evening.”
“He didn’t enjoy the dance. She turned down his offer to accompany him.”
“If the miles didn’t separate them, he would have enjoyed the dance.”
“He didn’t enjoy the dance. His lover was miles away.”
I decided to avoid complex verb conjugations hoping to speed up the reading process. Most readers have a short attention span. People spend more time “texting” and “instant messaging” than writing complete, grammatically correct sentences.
Language evolves. English is undergoing a major transformation now. My opinion on this transition is that we’re getting rid of the excess baggage of complex verb conjugations. Only my readers can judge whether or not my decision to simplify verbs works well.
The rule I apply to my writing when using incorrect grammar, is to be consistent.
The English Rewrite may not be as time consuming as either the Action Rewrite or the Character Rewrite, but it is just as important. With “Murder in the Fifth”, I devoted myself to the rewriting process. Readers have responded well to the final result.
I love the character rewrite. It’s an opportunity to delve more deeply into the life of each character and to clarify their voice. Characters not only must stay true to their ego but also must evolve according to their own natural path. The protagonist impacts other characters in order to progress the story.
Words convey the character’s personality and life. The words used to define a character might be either complex or simple; the words should portray a specific tone, and reveal the personality. Inconsistency between word choice and character development will undermine the reader’s impression of the individual.
At this stage of writing “Murder in the Fifth“, I just read the draft with a fresh perspective and created a new outline. Now, I must review the outline and write down my impressions of each character. I compared my current character impressions with my original character notes. I selected the qualities that best served the story. With the character rewrite, I hammered on those qualities for each individual.
Following are the top points I considered to improve the portrayal of the characters:
- Is the point of view consistent? Be aware of personal bias that is not consistent. Should feel like the best POV for the story. In “Murder in the Fifth” I used a limited omniscient point of view.
- If characters have interior monologues, is the style of each character’s internal thoughts consistent? Are internal thoughts active? Do they progress the story? With a limited omniscient point of view, I was able to delve into the internal lives of individuals. If “Murder in the Fifth” was told from a limiting first person point of view, internal motivations could only be addressed as assumptions by the character telling the story.
- Does dialogue confirm or contradict internal thoughts and does this progress the story? In real life, people think one thing but then often act and speak in contradictory manner. If this natural conflict happens to a character in a novel, the author must clearly indicate the clash. The disparity between internal emotions and external actions can build depth to a character. However, without sufficient explanation, a difference between a character’s thoughts and actions may cause confusion.
- Add immediacy by using the present tense when possible. Use active verbs. Descriptions and actions “happening now,” invite the reader into the fictional world. You can test your own emotional response by considering variations like the following:
- “I am standing on the spot where she was decapitated,” the detective realized the violence of her murder as he spoke to his partner.
- The detective felt the violence of her death by decapitation, when he stood on the place of her murder.
- Alternate literal and suggestive descriptions for the senses. Literal: The acrid stench of the skunk made him frown. Suggestive: It was like a solid punch to the nose, when the skunk passed by.
- Favor showing versus telling. Narration has a function but should be used sparingly.
- Implied connections allow readers to come to their own conclusions. Did she, or didn’t she? Was his presence significant to her, or not?
- Impingement allows one phrase to suggest or control the outcome of another. This means that an entire paragraph expresses an “if this happens, then this must happen” statement. It’s a form of setup and payoff. Short examples: If the creek is dry, then the boys can cross. If it has rained recently, the rapidly flowing creek will prevent crossing.
- Strive for a rhythm that allows readers to comprehend quickly. Your style should be consistent. A consistent style develops a natural rhythm that the reader can anticipate.
- Replace abstractions and generalizations with specifics. Details bring the reader into the story. The right details progress the story.
- Minimize character descriptions but hammer on a few qualities repeatedly. In journalism, I learned to lead an article with a salacious summary of the facts and to end with a muted summary. Due to the length of a novel it is seldom read in a single sitting. Days or even weeks may pass between the times a reader can sit down and continue. To keep the reader engaged at each sitting, the main details must be creatively repeated.
- Fulfill any expectations set up by stories, descriptions, and actions. Every word and phrase serves a purpose.
- If one character makes a claim about another, prove or disprove it with an active example. Be aware of the point of view in the proof. An example from the point of view of the claimant can be incorrect, but the same example from the omniscient storyteller will be assumed to be accurate.
- If a scene feels too long, it probably is. Re-evaluate the purpose of the section. Consider how to alter or incorporate the scene’s main beats elsewhere.
- Keep background stories and information relevant.
- Imply history without giving every detail.
- Make the climax clear and fulfilling. Story elements from the very beginning must lead not only to the final outcome of the novel, but also to the progression of each character.
- Give characters signature phrases, verbal ticks and repetitive behaviors.
- Avoid assigning human qualities to inanimate objects. Rarely effective. Example: The headmaster sat with his feet on an ottoman. The ottoman looked like a small boy doubled over in pain.
- Avoid details that date the material. Keep it relevant for readers. It’s fine to have time-specific details in context of the story as long as those details don’t have a different meaning today. Also, too many pop cultural references will limit the story as time passes. Most comedy makes use of current events and becomes limited by whether or not the audience remembers those events.
- Avoid symbolism unless it is a charged object, meaning that it adds a level of understanding to the reader at the conclusion of the story. In 2015 the Confederate Flag became a “charged object”. The flag represented one ideology at the beginning of the year and is transforming to another. Any symbol used in a novel must similarly affirm the progression of the story.
- Use common words and phrases when conveying background details. Save erudite vocabulary for long descriptions and for those plot points that are repeated throughout the story. For less important information, keep the choice of words at a sixth grade level.
By considering these points, and by using my revised character descriptions as a guideline, I was able to improve the depiction of each person in “Murder in the Fifth”. The Character Rewrite is the opportunity to highlight individuality and to make that egoistic personality serve the story.
To read about the third rewrite, “The English Rewrite”, click here.
Before I returned to the draft of “Murder in the Fifth”, I put my character descriptions, my story notes, and my short outline in an archive folder. I did not review my initial inspiration because I wanted a fresh perspective on the story.
As I read the draft, I created a new, more detailed outline. It included the current chapter/section breaks, the action (or lack of action), and the characters in each section. I allowed myself to correct obvious spelling or grammatical errors during this process, but I did not permit myself to write new sections or add information. I made notes on the new outline if important information was missing, or if contradictory facts existed in the text. I also added possible new section breaks in italic header text on both the draft and the outline.
The sole purpose of the Action Rewrite is to improve the story structure. With the above exceptions, I ignored all other faults and focused on the beats of the story. To help myself remain centered, I resisted the temptation to write new sections during this review. During the read through and the creation of the new outline, I asked myself the following questions:
Q: What is the purpose of each chapter?
Action compels the reader to continue reading. Action must progress the story. Present the action in a captivating manner. If the action can be stated in the present tense, the reader will become more engaged. However, if a section is solely descriptive, then the information must be essential to the plot. Following are examples of action and description “beats” from an imaginary story.
ACTION EXAMPLE: Assume the story has a runner named Tim, and that aspects of Tim’s running routines are essential to the plot of the story.
Running on the beach was a good workout for Tim.
Tim runs barefoot on the hard wet sand in the edge of the surf. His feet grow stronger and tougher with each impact.
While running in the edge of the surf, Tim wondered if it would be practical to put a sand training track in the field house at the University. The firm wet sand strengthened his calf muscles and toughened his feet. If he looked behind him, he could diagnose his gait by the impact impressions left in the sand. When he ran in the soft dry sand, his thighs and glutes received a harder workout than any training routine his Olympic coach demanded.
Descriptive details should titillate the reader’s imagination and logic. Since I developed into a novelist from a journalism and script writing background, I have to make an effort to include enough detail. If you like to write detailed descriptions, remember to inform the storyline and not distract from it. Too many details can put a reader to sleep.
DESCRIPTION EXAMPLE: Assume that an intelligent, self-motivated dog, like Lassie, is a character in your novel. You will probably avoid descriptions of cats. However, maybe one of your human characters has a cat and you want to mention that fact. Be sure the cat narrative elicits more knowledge about the dog or echoes a significant theme in the story. If it doesn’t, then the reader doesn’t need to know about the pet cat.
Elle is a cat person, but not just any type of cat person. She and her cat are a special breed. Her feline named Princess is a Siamese.
Elle feels that her boyfriend Tom doesn’t have a clue about cats. Princess, her Siamese, is as intelligent as his dog Lassie. Lassie is bigger, but not smarter.
How dare her boyfriend Tom say that Princess is lazy and useless, “like all cats”. Siamese are smart. One night Elle was asleep wearing her earplugs when the fire alarm went off. Princess licked Elle’s face until she woke up and safely left the apartment. Lassie, Tom’s border collie, is big enough to pull on his arm to get him out of bed in an emergency. But Princess is intelligent. She may even be smarter than Lassie, since she had to wake Elle by licking her face rather than by using brute strength.
Q: Is the reader engaged by the information provided?
Readers are hooked by specifics. One or two details that evoke a visual image or emotion are effective. Too many details can slow the reader down. In the descriptive example above, Elle has a Siamese cat, not just a “gray cat”.
Q: Has the background history and description been expressed in the best way to serve the story?
In the examples above, the “best action” and the “best description” not only provide specific details, but also hint at the storyline and the relationships in the story.
Q: Is there at least one sentence in each chapter that compels the reader to anticipate the ending of the book?
A “compelling” sentence in each section resonating the end of the entire novel may not be realistic. However, if it is possible to include this type of sentence then the payoff at the end of the novel will be more satisfying and dramatic to the reader.
After reading the draft, I evaluated the new outline by asking myself:
Q: Is the information presented in best order to serve the story?
In all stories, and especially a mystery, it’s important to give the right clues at the right time. The action is happening for the first time in the reader’s mind. If the resolution is revealed up front, then there’s no reason to read the story.
Q: Have expectations created by action and description been fulfilled as the story progresses?
Setup and payoff are the key to captivating the reader. Main story beats, where a new direction is taken, are only effective when the structure builds to the crisis. The story beat, or change in direction, should be foreshadowed (and, in some cases, explicitly laid out in advance).
Finally, note anything that feels out of place or insufficient to the storyline. Don’t be afraid to delete sections that you like, but that don’t support the story. For example, there is one Fiesta Hermosa scene that I deleted from “Murder in the Fifth” which I may share in a future blog post. I love it because it captures the extreme “youth culture” that permeates much of Los Angeles. However, the scene detracted from the story.
Now that you have the characters and actions laid out in a new outline, make changes to improve the story. First, reorder the outline to intensify the overall drama. Once you are comfortable with the new order, move those sections in the draft as well. Second, add additional information that supports the new outline. Third, return to those passages you felt were difficult to read and rewrite them. If a rewrite still doesn’t make the section feel right, it’s probably best to delete it. You can move any essential details from a deleted section to another area.
If the whole novel still feels like the story is out of sync, repeat “The Action Rewrite” before continuing on to “The Character Rewrite”. If you are happy with the flow of the story and how the drama builds, continue.
To read about the second focused rewrite, “The Character Rewrite”, click here to read this post.