Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Guest Post: Bringing Back the Dead

And the last guest post for June by Aaron Paul Lazar rather follows on from last week's. I think it's kind of fun to look at these things, at how writers manipulate this whole other universe...and sometimes I wonder if, as in my Displaced Detective series, that universe really exists someplace...and what the effects of our manipulations might really be...

-Stephanie Osborn

Bringing Back the Dead
by Aaron Paul Lazar

We writers don't often get to resurrect our dead.  

For years I’ve regretted murdering one particularly sweet character early in my LeGarde Mystery series, specifically in the second book, Upstaged, where a psychopath lurks backstage in the high school musical. The victim: Ethel Fox, who loves dogs, is a high school janitor, and volunteers to help with the drama club’s productions. Ethel also happens to have Down Syndrome. Looking back now, I realize I probably cast her as a victim to rile up my readers with righteous anger, and to make the villain scream “evil”. 

Now, five years later, I want a do-over. 

My cardinal rules include no killing of main characters—after all, these folks carry the series through its ten books. I’ll never kill Gus or Camille, or Siegfried, even if you might worry that they’re dead in some books[1] (wink). But the featured characters, who change from book to book, are always fair game. 

When my publisher, Lida Quillen at Twilight Times Books, expressed interest in re-releasing my first two books[2] along with the rest of the series as the “author’s preferred editions,” I was overjoyed. Now I could repair some of those newbie-writer awkward phrases, get rid of the excess adverbs and adjectives, and tidy up the prose. Besides, after writing fifteen books (I have three mystery series now), my skills have improved. It’s only natural to look back at one’s first books and grimace. So, after securing rights from the first publisher, I signed the new contracts and started the rewrites.

I didn’t change much in Double Forté, except to tidy up the prose, add a bit more spice to a few scenes, and delete a bunch of excess words. 

But when I started to polish Upstaged, I remembered an embarrassing and awkward experience I had last year, and was consumed with the idea of tweaking the plot. 

While working at a facility for physically and intellectually challenged adults who love music, art, writing, and theater, my daughter Melanie invited me in to help during their summer festival. I arrived feeling quite virtuous, since I took a vacation day to volunteer, but instead of “helping” the folks there, I spent the day being humbled, time after time. The individuals radiated joy, and were delirious with excitement because they were about to put on a musical show for their visitors. Family and friends crowded the facility, and although I saw evidence of serious physical and intellectual “disabilities,” I was convinced these lovely people did not in any sense of the word feel disabled on that day. 

They danced and sang in the hallways, held hands and giggled, painted gorgeous pictures from wheelchairs (some were displayed in local art shows), and delighted in the costumes in which they’d been dressed for the celebration. 

While I snapped pictures for their scrapbooks, I fell in love with the people and teachers, was suitably humbled, and realized that after eight hours of fun, I had received much more than I’d given. A few days later, I donated Upstaged to one of the higher functioning members of the writing class, knowing that she loved musicals.

So, a year passed, and the writing teacher asked me if I’d come in and give a talk to her students who loved books and writing. Thrilled, I arranged the date. We had a blast, and talked for almost two hours. They asked great questions, and I delighted in their company. It was after the class while I was donating more books that I suddenly remembered I’d killed off a character with Down Syndrome in Upstaged

What had I been thinking? Why did I donate the very book where I let the villain kill a character who represents so many people at this arts center? Was I insane? To be honest, it had been so long since I’d written the book, I really hadn’t remembered about Ethel, but when I did, I kicked myself. Repeatedly.

It was this experience that made me bring Ethel back to life. Not only did I prevent her murder in a way that didn’t goof up the original plot, but I gave her a cuter name. What kind of a name is Ethel for a sweet, helpful, loving lady? Her new name is Cindi. I think it fits her. Don’t you?

The Lord keeps me humble. It’s a good thing. There’s nothing worse than a big-headed fool. But frankly, he doesn’t have to work very hard at it. I give him lots of help.

The newest book in the LeGarde Mystery series, Don’t Let the Wind Catch You, #6, has just been released. It’s stands alone like all of the other books in the series and can be read in any order. I try to write all my series like this so folks can pick up any book at any time and enjoy it. Don’t Let the Wind Catch You is a sequel to the prequel of Double Forté (Tremolo: cry of the loon was the prequel.) 

I seriously hope there are no urges ten years from now to get another “do-over” with this book, because that cycle of self-doubt and the obsessive need to perfect can be exhausting. I hereby declare that I am happy with this story and will not come back in years to come to nitpick it to death. There. I said it. Now I just have to stick to my promise (grin).

[1] Mazurka, (2009 Twilight Times Books)
[2] Double Forté (2005), Upstaged (2006)

I think that all writers, at some point, experience a desire for a "do-over." Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don't. And sometimes, I think, it's better that the book is taken out of our hands at a certain point! I know that I have an unquenchable tendency to "tweak" repeatedly, and will continue to do so no matter how good the book may already be. These tweaks, if not reined in, can actually spoil a perfectly good book.
So I am, so far, thankful that I have NOT had an opportunity for a "do-over"!

-Stephanie Osborn