I have a major drawback as a professional writer: I can’t think and write at the same time.  Or rather, I can’t think and write and judge my own work at the same time.

I have a non-drawback as a professional writer: I don’t get blocked.  I can get words on paper, lots of words, if they are what’s required.

Combine the first two, you have a delivered first draft of somewhat questionable quality

I have a possibly unusual aversion: I ban anything that is remotely true–or even reminiscent–of my personal life from the pages of my books.

I also have rather definite tastes in what I like as a romance reader: characters who have lots of legitimate beef with each other; characters who won’t make anyone else happy but each other.  I.e., somewhat strange, off-kilter relationships.

Which means that a lot of time when I’m just writing–and not thinking–I have no idea where this high-stake, grievance-laden, completely-unfamiliar-to-me relationship is going.  Who the heck are these people?  And why are their lives so eff-ed up?

Which means a first draft that goes entirely off the rail at some point: halfway, two-thirds, last quarter–maybe all of them.

Now let’s add one more somewhat strange aversion: I don’t like plot.  I don’t have anything against plots per se; I enjoy a good mystery, thriller, and SF as much as anyone else.  And one of the reasons I adore the first Harry Potter is precisely for the beauty of its impeccably woven plot.  I just don’t like a lot of external plot in a historical romance.  What I prefer is to place my characters in a situation, hopefully of their own making, and then just sit back and watch them dig their way out.  (Which in a first draft they typically end up tunneling directly into a sewer main, but hey, that just means they have to start over again.)

But HIS AT NIGHT had to have a plot, what with the hero being a secret agent and all.  But I resisted–oh, how I resisted.  In the first version I did away with the villain by chapter two–not the falling off a cliff only to come back at the end kind of doing away.  Dude was really, really dead and gone.  Buried.  Feeding maggots.  In the second version I offed him midway through the book.  Just have no interest in stand-alone villains.  Much more fun letting hero and heroine be their own worst villains.  And the hero is a secret agent?  Well, who gives a crap about the rest of his case once he has met the heroine.  Time for moody angst!

Have I mentioned that the first complete draft of HIS AT NIGHT was an EPIC FAIL?

Yes, it was.  *nods head sagely*  And this was  WITH my editor reading along the way, so as to avoid another first-draft fail.  Somehow her repeated advice that I give the story a backbone of a strong plot fell on deaf ears–or blind eyes, I guess, since we communicate almost exclusively by email.  I should have known, as in the final weeks before I handed in the first draft my head shattered in excruciating pain every time I worked on the damn thing–and my head never hurts while working on a book unless things are going horribly wrong.

At–thanks Jessica RRR–there is a de-motivation poster that says, “PERSEVERANCE: The courage to ignore the obvious wisdom of turning back.”  That would be me.

So…the overhauls.

No need to talk about the versions that had been discarded along the way.  Following the first complete draft, the overhaul centered on that backbone of plot–for the events of the book to cohere.  It was a 60-70% rewrite.  Which did improve the plot very much but when the line edits came back, it became obvious–after my editor pointed it out left and right–that the book had lost a lot of its urgency and sharpness.  So at the line edit stage, which should be the writing equivalent of sprinkling the chopped parsley and maybe a bit more of freshly ground pepper on the finished dish, I cooked the darn dish from the beginning again–another 40-50% overhaul.

(I was hoping this would be NQAH amount of work, but it turned out to be DELICIOUS redux–ack!–and in half the time, no less.)

As I progressed through this final rewrite, whenever I refinished a portion of the book, I would send it to my beloved Janine, who was reading it for the first time, for copyediting–the amount of changes I’d made meant that the official copyedits, which was made on the same line-edited manuscript, weren’t as useful–and critiquing.

It soon became clear from Janine’s copious and meticulous comments that in all that wrestling with plot and coherence, I’d 1)forgotten how to properly structure a sentence and 2)far worse, largely neglected the emotions in certain key scenes.  The two stem from the same source, i.e., trying not to sink too much time on prose when the larger structure of the book remained unresolved.  But at some point, especially in a book about the matters of the heart, one has to sink into character and feel, and that is impossible with pages upon pages of just dialogue and action.

It was like learning to write all over again: delving into character emotions, developing insights, ratcheting up the tension, making scenes matter.

Everything was working beautifully up until the beginning of chapter 20.  As my deadline neared again, it dawn on me that I still hadn’t properly resolved one of the major issues near the end of the book, when secrets and lies burst open, past and present collide, and LOTS OF STUFF hang in balance, because my God, who the hell are these people and why are their lives so fucked and how am I supposed to know how anyone would do in such a FUBAR situation?  The last time I led a double-life and my lies exploded in my face was when I was in fifth grade, when it was finally discovered that I, the model student*, had stopped doing my homework weeks ago.

I stopped sleeping.  At one point, so sleep-deprived, I started writing a farce of an ending, giggling all the while.  My critique partner, Janine, who stayed up one whole night and half the next day with me–I can never be grateful enough–sagely put down her foot and told me to stop and take a nap.

I did managed to get down a non-farcical version and turn it in to the typesetter.  But less than 24 hours later, I realized how I really should have written it.  So, over the holidays, I went over most of the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, and then took a ball-wrecker to the last 2.5 chapters.

Now I’m finally happy–ecstatic, actually–with the book.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard.  I have hated all my books during the writing.  All of them, passionately.  But somehow, by the magic of creative alchemy, by the time I get to the end, I am just in love: This book and I, we have come through so much, we have quarreled, fought, and battled through innumerable problems and now we have finally reached OUR happily ever after.

I often hesitate to recommend my books to people, because I never know how any given story of mine will interact with any given reader.  But this I can say: Whenever I look at one of my books on the shelf, I sigh and go, you are so perfect–for me.

And now HIS AT NIGHT has joined the ranks of those books that are perfect for me.

*Actually, by Chinese standards, I was a somewhat problematic student, but my grades kept my teachers from targeting me too hard.

35 thoughts on “So…About HIS AT NIGHT

  1. And the hero is a secret agent? Well, who gives a crap about the rest of his case once he has met the heroine. Time for moody angst!

    Amen! Plot, schmott, I say. I love your books because they give center stage to the emotional journey. That’s plot enough for me.

    Can’t wait for May 25.

    • LOL!

      That was precisely what I said to my agent. “When I reread books,” I told her, “I never read the plot parts, only the angst parts.”

      My agent replied, “But you have to think about people who are reading your books for the first time too.”

      After some reflection, I decided that she made good sense. 🙂

      That said, I think the emotional journey in this book doesn’t suffer for the plot.

  2. (((((((((((((((((((((Sherry))))))))))))))))))))

    Just reading this post was like reliving that marathon. Which is why I feel compelled to bring out the great big cyber hug!!!

    Can’t wait to read the last 2.5 chapters rewrite! And so glad, as CupK8 says, that you’re pleased with the final result. And that (dare I hope?) you are getting to sleep again.

    • I’m getting plenty of sleep, thank you, my love. And I hope you are completely recovered too.

      Oh man, those were some desperate hours, weren’t they? Thank you so much for all your invaluable insights.

      You were the wind beneath my wings.

      • :: blushing ::

        They were desperate hours, but truthfully, by the end I was punch drunk and giggly, which was a good antidote to the knowing that if someone else finds a typo in this book, it’s because I didn’t catch it.

        You know, it was an adventure, and I wouldn’t have missed it. As I was saying to Bettie around that time, reading a book at that stage is a little like eating chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven. Your tongue may get burned a little but the chocolate is still melted and the cookie is so fresh, you can hardly resist.

        Plus Lord Vere is so darn sexxxy.

        • I love that analogy!

          And it’s always fascinating for me as the writer to see how a book click–or not click, as it may be–with a reader. I had to admit it that I didn’t quite foresee you and Vere. Hee.

          • LOL. I love dark, flawed, messed up characters. And so much the better if they are spies. And if they are highly intelligent on top of it, well, I’m sold.

  3. I’m so ridiculously excited to see this post–I’ve been stalking your blog daily in hopes of a glimpse into the progress of His at Night.

    And now, after reading?

    I can’t wait!

    • I didn’t know that, or I have reported sooner! 🙂

      I generally don’t do a lot of progress reports, which is funny because I love stalking other writers’ blogs and seeing what they are doing with their WIPs. But for some reason I never am in the mood to make a chronicle of my own journey toward “finis.” Part of the reason is that I’m a slow writer. Even a post like this takes me five or six hours to write–I know, astonishing–but there you go.

      Hope you like HIS AT NIGHT when you get around to it.

  4. Sorry the whole thing was so painful for you, but from you’re tale of woe made me laugh out loud. I can’t wait for the book!

  5. Man, I really do know the difference between “your” and “you’re”. I had surgery recently and it’s made me stupid (but still really excited about the book).

    • Hee. It makes me cackle too–it’s truly a journey full of black humor, this grind.

      And hope you recover soon and fully from surgery. And I refuse to acknowledge a mistaken use of “you’re” as stupidity, or my copyeditors would consider me incurably dumb! (I don’t have a problem per se with homophones, but oh boy my grasp of certain tenses is tenuous at best, nonexistent at other times.)

  6. Oh God, now I don’t feel so alone!: my writing process is such a train wreck of epic proportions, I’ve always felt that maybe, perhaps I was a hack and/or that I’ll never do anything “right.” I love it when you share these stories. Can’t wait to read His at Night 🙂

    • LOL, I always take myself as the resolute center of normalcy. I.e., you have Nora Robert at one end of the spectrum, popping out books with speed and aplomb, on the other hand you have writers like Lisa Valdez who has such a hard time with it (I’m really happy for her that her book is finally coming out, if for nothing than other than personal closure). And there in the middle you have me and other writers like me, for whom nothing is easy but who eventually come out okay.

      So no, you really aren’t alone. And even if I’m wrong, and few writers have these kinds of troubles, you’ll at least still have me for company.

      Book after book. 🙂

  7. It sounds like it was a long, hard fight. I’m so glad you finished His at Night to your satisfaction. I’ll be at the ebookstore to buy it the day it comes out. 🙂

  8. Sounds like giving birth:P I’m delirious with joy. This is one of a very select few upcoming releases that has had me stalking writer blogs. I think I’ll open a bottle of champagne & steal one of my hubby’s cigars:P

  9. It was a great post and thank you for taking the time to do it. What I loved about the post was the vulnerability you showed, that writing is sometimes a series of disasters before the final draft is done. Out of your dispair, anxiety, and excitement, you have offered invaluable support to other writers. I’m buying! Again, thank you.

    • You are welcome. It’s almost at the end to write about the process–in fact, for me it is only possible to write about the process when it is finished. The first time I wrote about the how messy and panicky it is for me to overhaul a book, I didn’t even realize that it might be helpful for other writers to know that they are not alone with an unwieldy, uncertain, time-consuming process.

      I guess you can look forward to one of those “Holy @#$%” posts with everyone of my books. 🙂

  10. How did I miss this blog post when it first went up? I’m so glad for news of HAN — really looking forward to it! If you’re happy with it yourself, I’m sure we your readers will be ready to hug it to our chests and carry it around with us day after day. 🙂

    Thanks for posting on your writing process! It’s really helpful for writers (and non-writers) to know how wrenching and difficult writing can be. Perseverance and humor (and great friends and supporters!) are so key for success, and you’ve got it all! Best of luck and keep us posted with news!

  11. Hello Sherry,

    Again, your honesty astonishes me. Sometimes I wonder if you really see what I see, when you read what you wrote in here.

    I can´t believe most authors would be so face-to-face with their difficulties and confident enough to share them with the-world !

    I imagine we all can relate to what you say and how relaxing it is for me to see that all these things I feel and go through are somewhat normal.

    For example, when you say…

    “Combine the first two, you have a delivered first draft of somewhat questionable quality”

    …it reassures me that it’s okay to have a very bad first draft, that maybe i don’t have to obsess in editing every paragraph I write, as soon as I write it ! (yes, I’m working on not being so hard on myself…) :S

    Or when you wrote…

    “I have hated all my books during the writing. All of them, passionately. “

    …it made me relax a lot and giggle at what you just confessed publicly and I thought it was my biggest secret. lol

    How many times I just hate what I wrote yesterday or how many times I’m writing something, trying my best, and it just feels shallow, and how I hate-and-love and hate again in this little struggle of mine in writing on my second language… uffff…

    All of this to say, you don’t post often (at all), but when you do it’s really nice and comfy to drop by and linger on your words of wisdom and casualness.


    • Vanessa,

      LOL. I went back to see whether I’d said anything spectacularly soul-baring. I didn’t see it. 🙂

      I guess it’s because for me this is not new. I have the same trouble with every book and I do a holy-crap-I-almost-couldn’t-manage-it report with every book.

      The bad first draft thing? There is actually a school of thought called “The Sh*tty First Draft” school–or so Meredith Duran told me. Their philosophy is you just get it out, doesn’t matter how bad it is. (The funny thing is I don’t want to belong to the Sh*tty First Draft school. I’m an involuntary sh*tty first drafter!)

      The hating the book during writing thing? I do not know a single writer who has not hated some book of his/hers during the writing.

      What astonishes me is how often I hear writers say they hate their books–AFTER they are done writing them. Me, I really like mine. I don’t think that makes me a narcissist, it just means I write books that are to my taste.

      I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that what I write here isn’t all that uncommon. In fact, many writers chronicle, in far greater detail, their frustrations with their process. Jennifer Crusie, for example. I think she and Bob Mayer did a thing where they recorded all their problems and progress on a particular book in one year–but don’t quote me on it, it was a while ago.

      But, if it makes you feel less alone in your struggle, then you are very welcome. 🙂

      And best of luck.

      P.S. I’m not sure about wise, but I am very casual. 🙂

  12. i love the stories of your creative journey. I’m just starting my second novel, and unlike the dream-run of the first, these characters and plot are running me ragged, so it’s incredibly relieving and inspiring to hear how much work goes into your perfect (for me) novels.

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