Oh, just one more thing

ColumboThe-book-currently-under-the-working-title-The-Zero-Hour opens with a murder, and the protagonist is the investigator on the murder case.  Now, let me state this right out, it’s not a murder mystery–it’s not about laying out clues so the reader has the opportunity to guess the identity of the killer before the protagonist does, and (SPOILER) after about midway through the book, the investigation into the killer’s identity isn’t even what the story is about anymore. (END SPOILER)

But there’s still something going on that I’ve never really had to confront before, as an author.  There are clues laid out as to what’s going on, and those clues have to lead to two different logical conclusions: they have to add up to what is actually going on, but in the meantime, they have to add up to what the protagonist thinks is going.

Now, I know what’s really going on, so there’s a degree to which any difference between the reality and what the protagonist thinks is going on looks like foolishness on his part.  But it’s important that it not come off as foolishness to the reader–that the protagonist’s conclusions seem like legitimate, reasonable conclusions based on what he (and the reader) know at the time.  (This is less important the deeper into the book we get, as the protagonist’s judgement becomes legitimately clouded by his growing involvement in events–but as more of what’s actually going on becomes known to him, anyway, so there’s less theorising involved.)

So I feel insecure about that element of the book, and it’s compounded by the fact that ties into one of the things I think is a weakness in my writing anyway–that events or arguments that are intended to convince my characters of the need for a given course of action actually are convincing.  This is something Lisa will identify for me when she reads my drafts: “Yeah, here, where you think you’ve talked him into it?  You … really haven’t.”

So I rely on her to let me know these things.  She reads along with me as I write–I’m about four hundred pages into The Zero Hour manuscript, and she’s read up to about page three hundred.  And she’s had to put up with me walking into the room while she does so, saying, “So, how’s it going, huh, huh?  Keeping your interest, huh, huh?”, which is definitely not at all the way you should be treating your first reader.

Lisa’s had about ten years of training as a first reader, and she’s become really good at it.  (I think she’s even better at it because she doesn’t have any aspirations to be a writer of fiction herself.)  She can point to specific items on the page that don’t work; or if she can’t identify just what the problem is, she can point to a given passage and say, “Something doesn’t work here”; or, she can make a determination like, “If you want this point in chapter twelve to work, that point back in chapter nine needs to be a more convincing precursor.”

She has a couple of other elements in her reader’s skillset that I really value.  She actually points out all these things she notices; I don’t end up coming to her later and saying, “So, this bit here worked for you?” and she responds, “No, not really.”  If it didn’t work for her, she circled it and made a note.

She doesn’t get offended if there’s something she thinks should be changed, that ultimately I decide not to change.  She knows that having pointed it out means that I’ve gone back and given it another look, and evaluated any alternatives.

And she doesn’t give me prognoses, unless I ask for them–she points out the problems, but she doesn’t decide how I should go about fixing them, unless I actually say to her, “Okay, so what would fix this?”

Hmm.  I’d intended to write a post about how I hope this manuscript is making me grow as a writer, because it’s forcing me to confront something I’m insecure about.  It’s turned into me extolling Lisa’s virtues as a first reader.

I’m sure, when she reads this back over, she’ll approve.

I

Words so far: 84,548

Though I’ve taken the weekend off from the manuscript, as it was time to finally sit down and thrash out an ending for the story before proceeding any further.

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