If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
G.P. Gottlieb is the author of Charred: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (D.X. Varos Publishing 2023), the third in her culinary mystery series. She is host for New Books in Literature, a podcast channel on the New Books Network, and has interviewed over 170 authors. You can read more about her at her site: https://www.gpgottlieb.com/, on Facebook: authorgottlieb, and Instagram: WhippedSipped.
In the first draft of Charred: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (DX Varos 2023), I just wrote whatever popped into my head. I created superfluous back stories for nearly every character, including a few of protagonist Alene Baron’s many employees in the café. I included details that nobody cares about, mentioned the protagonist’s run-in with a mean girl in middle school even though she’s a grown woman with children of her own, and went on for pages about her sister.
I let my imagination go wild. I also covered memories of Alene’s mother who died of breast cancer, her post-graduation trip to Greece, and her thoughts about several previous boyfriends. There were pages and pages about her ex-husband. None of it was important to the story, which takes place during the summer of 2020. You might remember that was when a highly contagious and poorly understood virus was galloping across the globe, killing millions, and forcing many of us to hide in our homes.
The pandemic is one of several struggles my protagonist faces. It doesn’t play a leading role, but rumbles in the background like a volcano about to erupt. I remember those months of worrying about homeless people and those forced to beg on streets that were empty of cars or pedestrians. We could walk for miles (in sweet home, Chicago), and see very few other people braving the possibility of crossing paths with the virus.
The characters in my book were frightened, like all of us. I wanted to tell those stories – it didn’t matter if they were going to be cut later because they helped me get into the characters’ heads. The pandemic was like a simmering evil presence, sitting in the corner holding a weapon – everyone was afraid, but we all went about our business because there is a limit to how much time any of us can spend staring at the walls before we go mad.
In ongoing chapters, my protagonist struggles with a decision about admitting something important. In my first draft, she flashes back to missing her cousin’s funeral while she was traveling in Greece with her best friend. She remembers the sun, the history, and that her guilt boiled down to disappointing her parents. When she finally faces her current dilemma, the reader understands that she’s conscious of all the wrong decisions she’s made, even though I cut those early travel scenes.
After I’ve filled extraneous pages with a myriad of unnecessary details, and the first draft is achingly long, I start the process that will turn it into a readable novel. My goal is to focus on telling a story in which each chapter moves the action, and the combination of all the chapters form a forward thrusting arc. I make sure that the pandemic is tucked behind a wall – still there, but not pounding on the glass to be let in.
Each time I’ve completed another draft, I’d show it to my editor/teacher, who has a gift for striking out what can go unsaid, and highlighting what needs more attention. This is the third book she’s helped me pull together with ideas for re-ordering chapters, adding missing information, strengthening the climax, and polishing the ending.
Sometimes I wonder if I could save time and effort by avoiding my propensity for long, blabby explanations and my need to tell you everything I know about any given person or situation. That happens both in writing and real life. But my method has worked for three books now, and as we often say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it*.”
*The phrase has been attributed to a government official during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, but there are enough earlier quotes to keep it solidly in the, “It is said” realm of aphorisms.