By Laura Spinella
There is a subplot in my first novel, Beautiful Disaster, that, once upon a time, caused quite a stir. A character, a woman who lived a Mata Hari life was murdered years ago. Throughout the novel the reader is never quite sure if the hero, Flynn, is responsible for her death. Because she was Flynn’s lover, we are certain that Alena’s demise contributes to his PTSD. We know that while he’s running from the authorities, Flynn is also running from the memory of her murder. Readers are left to ponder and vacillate until the very last pages: Could Flynn have killed her? There are numerous mitigating factors, various clues that lead the reader down this exact path.
From the original draft through hot-potato passes to publishers, I must confess: He did it. Flynn killed Alena, his ex-lover. Now, I won’t get into the whys or Saul Goodman defense I devised to assuage any anger. In fact, I’ll go so far as to admit that I was so “in love” with my own character, I couldn’t imagine why any reader wouldn’t absolve Flynn of the crime and feel empathy for his guilt. I felt strongly about this particular point. It was my story, and this was the way I wanted to tell it. When taking into consideration the array of circumstances surrounding the heinous act, well geez, it made perfect sense to me.
No surprise (years later) that the book did not sell while in the hands of the big houses, or even smaller publishers. Oh sure, there was interest and compliments. But ultimately, there was rejection. I cried, I cursed; I blamed everything from bad timing to a bad hair day. Then it was over. From there I moved on to another book and a shiny new agent. An agent that came with a very different way of going about her business. That’s when things started to change direction for me, and for my writing. I came on board at Writers House with a fresh manuscript, something more women’s fiction than romantic fiction, which certainly described Beautiful Disaster. Through a series of small accidents that I could not have invented on my best writing day, the book with the indefensible hero ended up in my agent’s hands. She read it. She loved it. Loved it except for that one pesky little point… You got it. I’ll paraphrase the advice: “Laura, circumstance is the villain in this book, not your hero. Don’t do that to him. Don’t ask that of your reader.”
It clicked. It made sense. The light bulb came… well, a light bulb with correct wattage was finally installed in my writer’s brain. Not every point in every story could be what I wanted, even if was my story. The direction was not solely mine to plot. Not if that book or the next one was going to find an audience in the real world of readers. Well, as you might have guessed, the only place you still find Flynn guilty of Alena’s murder is an original draft, buried somewhere here on my desktop computer. I got lucky with that first book. My editor at Berkley remembered the manuscript. She recalled loving it, but… She went against tradition and gave the revised novel a second read with fresh pair of eyes. Clearly, the advice was spot-on and I was a little less green when making future life or death decisions for my characters.
That seems like such a long time ago. Nowadays, I couldn’t fathom sticking so close to an original draft—nor would I want to. I’m fortunate to have an agent whose hidden passion is editing. Her suggestions don’t come in “Here’s a thought…” phrases. They come in bulleted paragraphs that drill so deep into my story they make me wonder if I understand my books as well as she does. The answer to that is sometimes, I don’t. Sometimes she sees things I’ve yet to imagine, directions I’m flirting with but haven’t really explored.
Drafts are linear; they’re about getting the bare bones of a story down on paper. From there, whether it’s an agent, editor, first reader, critique partner or the depth of your own imagination, you’re off to parts unknown.
Laura Spinella is the author of the award-winning novel Beautiful Disaster and newly released Perfect Timing, visit her at lauraspinella.net.