This is where a crime-fiction writer takes us through a passage from one of their books, explaining why they wrote it the way they did, and what they hoped to convey to the reader through the way in which they wrote. An invaluable practical analysis for all crime-fiction writers, whatever stage they’re at.
Introducing a key character in Bullet in the Chamber by John DeDakis
This is an excerpt from the opening scene of the novel. It’s the first day on the job for my protagonist, Lark Chadwick, as the newest White House correspondent for the Associated Press.
Rather than showing you the final version of the passage in which the reader first meets Doug Mitchell, Lark’s love interest, I thought I’d turn things around and show you how the creation of the scene evolved because – let’s face it – most writing is REwriting.
When I create a novel, I turn off my internal editor and write the first draft all the way through before I loop back and futz with it. This is because it’s important to me to have a psychological sense of accomplishment that comes when the novel is “finished.”
Yes. Yes. I know. It’s not really finished. The first draft is always a steaming pile of . . . um . . . clay. But at least now it’s at a point where I can look at it objectively and begin to mold it into something better. Consequently, my first drafts are rather barren. It’s only during the rewrite that I go back, add more details, buff and polish.
In this scene, Lark has passed through security at the northwest gate of the White House complex and is making her way up the driveway to the West Wing where the press briefing room is located. At this point in the writing, I still didn’t have a clear image of what Doug looked like.
I turned toward the briefing room and did a double take. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, his Nikon at the ready. He raised the camera to his face and began snapping pictures of me.
I agree – it’s clunky and lame. At this point, Doug’s just a name with a camera. The writing isn’t vivid. The reader’s senses aren’t engaged. What does Doug look like? What’s he wearing? Are there any sounds? The scene takes place in February, so how can I convey the suggestion that it’s cold?
I turned toward the briefing room and did a double take. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, Nikon at the ready, and flashed me a neon smile that contrasted sharply with his ruddy complexion and black-stubble beard. He’s six-two and was looking fine in a Navy pea coat, jeans and work boots.
Doug raised the camera to his face and began shooting pictures of me. I could hear the rapid-fire chick-koo, chick-koo of the shutter as he squeezed off shot after shot. He wore fingerless gloves.
Okay. That’s a little better. The reader is beginning to see what I saw – and heard -- in my head. No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “write what you know.” Well, my daughter, Emily, is a writer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s always cold there – even in the summer – so, she sometimes wears fingerless gloves when she writes. Ta-dah. Emily’s fingerless gloves are now immortalized in my novel.
But the rewrite is far from finished. Bullet in the Chamber went through six revisions. It’s always tricky to know how much back story to reveal at the beginning. You want to convey a sense of the dynamics of a personality or a relationship, but you don’t want to slow down the story’s forward momentum.
Oh! One more thing: Part of the buffing and polishing process requires that you pay attention to the nit-picks, like repeated words. They’re easy to miss, especially if you’ve been reading the same passage over and over again. That’s why, as I got close to the end of the rewrite process, I read the manuscript out loud. When I did, I noticed this:
I turned toward the briefing room and did a double take. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, his Nikon at the ready.
Double take. Double doors. One of those doubles needs to go. Here’s how it all got resolved in the…..
I turned toward the White House briefing room. Doug Mitchell stood at the double doors, Nikon at the ready, and flashed me his trademark neon smile that contrasted sharply with his ruddy complexion, dark eyes, thick black hair, and stubble beard. He’s six-two and was looking fine in a navy pea coat, jeans and work boots.
I hadn’t seen him in a week and my heart did an involuntary flip-flop.
Doug is ten years older than I am. We’d worked together at the Sun-Gazette in Columbia, Georgia, where he was a staff photographer. We had a thing for each other then, but it never got off the ground because the police were, shall we say, “very interested” in him for awhile, so I backed off. But, when the police lost interest, mine picked up. And so did Doug’s interest in me.
We both got jobs at the Associated Press when the Sun-Gazette folded, but right away he was on the road covering Will Gannon’s successful presidential campaign, so we only saw each other off and on. Mostly off.
Now, after not hearing from him all weekend (okay, forty-eight hours, sixteen minutes, and thirty seconds, give or take -- but who’s counting?), there he was thirty yards ahead of me, hatless in the cold, his dark, wavy hair parted down middle and curling slightly over his ears and collar.
Doug raised the camera to his face and began shooting pictures of me. He wore fingerless gloves and I could hear the rapid-fire chick-koo, chick-koo of the shutter as he squeezed off shot after shot.
He was now about ten feet from me, camera at his face, clicking off more shots and adding his own narration.
“Here’s the famous Lark Chadwick about to enter the White House briefing room for the first time. She’s taken her iPhone from her ear and is pointing it in my general direction.”
I was annoyed. He gives me nothing but radio silence all weekend then has the nerve to turn up, all jovial, acting as if everything’s wonderful, and then he makes a point of trying to embarrass me. But I couldn’t afford to make a scene. Not here. Not now.
I put on my best tight smile and gave his lens a laser stare. “Good morning to you, too, Mister Mitchell.” I hoped he felt the chill from the ice in my voice.
A FINAL NOTE:
As you may have noticed, I’m a man who writes as a woman. (Surely, there’s a twelve-step program for that!) Fortunately, I’m blessed to have many young women in my life who give me invaluable feedback about the authenticity of Lark’s voice and insights. So, when I showed an early draft of this scene to one of my twenty-something female friends, she noted, helpfully, that even though Lark likes Doug, she has enough inner strength and self-respect not to give away her feelings right away.
So, Breaking News! Most scenes don’t fall into place fully formed. They’re built bit by bit. Sometimes they’re bloated; other times they might be barren. But they get better and more vivid when you make sure you involve all the reader’s senses, and when you get feedback from objective beta readers who have the courage to tell you what’s not working.