13 March 2021

Don't Make Me Turn This Car Around

I’ve convinced myself–against all experience–that Asheville is four hours from my driveway. Every trip, I’m cranking the music and thinking about the Blue Ridge fading off like haze, line after line in their peek at eternity. Yep, just four hours away. As a scientific fact, the trip from south Nashville is five hours minimum–with luck and a heavy foot. You get the Lookie Lous gawking around Pigeon Forge, then flatbeds loaded with timber crawl up the steep grades. Next, a malingering road construction project where I-40 tunnels into North Carolina. I've become certain it isn’t a construction project at all. There’s never actual construction. No, it’s a social experiment to document how drivers come unglued when jammed together into one lane for zero reason. Another time chunk gone. I pull into Asheville ruing whatever the hell happened to that quick escape east.

My writing works the same way. I set out after a shiny idea, but the problems start soon enough. The tone is off. The POV isn’t working. The plot takes a bad turn. All that can be fixed, but also like those Carolina trips, it’ll take longer than I think.

My first published crime story was in MWA’s 2014 anthology Ice Cold. I had a shiny idea indeed, plus a Shakespearian body count and key death at the end. I edited it mercilessly. And quickly, as I recall it today, except I count seventeen manuscript versions on my hard drive. My story in next month's AHMM clocks in at a svelte thirteen versions. My max on a published story? 75 versions on my hard drive.

Some process lessons from along my journeys:

Begin with the End in Mind

Yes, this old saw. Bear with me. I’m not talking killer twists but personal intentionality. What does a writer want out of writing a story? Creative bliss? Cool. My hard drive also has those stories. The pure joy of that is an amazing gift. Or is a piece meant for an audience? How competitive or specific an audience? Once a potential editor and their readers get involved, they become your boss. They deserve edits with their quality standards and enjoyment in mind, edits that may wilt creative bliss into drudgery. 

Drudgery also describes minutes lost to Knoxville traffic if you hit it at the wrong time. Maybe I have hard feelings about that.

This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Written

I considered it a healthy sign as writing growth when I stone cold understood that an early draft wasn’t anywhere near as groovy as my creative high believed. I might’ve had a great concept, say like to get to Asheville in four hours, but reality and hard work comes around as it must.

Take that story in Ice Cold. I believed that key death made for a Frankly Amazing Ending until an editor demonstrated--mere days before the deadline--that it was a Terrible Ending and also Physically Impossible. Cue more versions, the fast kind. 

Unobjectively loving a piece is my signal that the draft objectively stinks. It means I’m still thinking about me, not a reader. It means I haven’t pushed an idea enough to risk hating it.

Be Constructive with Your Readback

At some point, I find myself tweaking a manuscript here and there, but the creative momentum is kaput. Either it needs more critique or else a deeper think. Surgical procedure deep, and if so, I’ll print the thing and read it aloud. Many times. As an earth-friendly step, I’ll let Word’s readback feature sub in for an occasional cycle. Typos and clunky sequences ring plain. Missing layers and connections emerge. That’s the story finding its core. Oh, darling passages will remind me that of course I can’t cut them, and in a joy-crushing grind, out they go. I’ll keep iterating until I do hate the piece and might pitch the computer out the window rather than read one more word.

This Is the Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written

It’s not.

Despair and loathing are signs the piece is nearly ready. I step away for a bit until I’m all planed out emotionally.

The The

Recently, a critique partner highlighted where I’d used the verb “amble” three times over a few hundred words. Nobody ambles that often, not even cowpokes. I’ll search for crutch repetition like that.

One crucial word gets a special check: “The.” Such a weak word, the. Any cluster of it correlates to undercooked prose. I comb through anything with those three letters in that order, like “Then,” “they,” “other,” and so forth. Those buggers aren’t power words, either (Note: “Either” is a “the” word). Once my excess “the” and crutch stuff is out, no kidding, the piece has another level of energy. It’s found its style.

Lock Down

And I’m not done yet. Sure, I’m done with it mentally and spiritually, but it’s spit and polish time. I’ll let Word read a last cycle while I check along on my master document. I’m looking to confirm those final changes sound and work how I want. Darlings and typos can sneak back in. When I’m satisfied (exhausted) with a page, I mark it as locked down. When all pages reach lockdown, I scream or weep or drink wine, whatever gives me permission to get off the hamster wheel.

Such are my steps to submit something that makes me proud. Someday, maybe I’ll get more efficient. Until then, it’s like with the Asheville drive. I may get there in a bad mood, but I get there. Soon enough, I’m happily lost in those Blue Ridge lines like haze. The mistake isn’t underestimating the travel time but not completing the trip.


  1. Great post, Bob! And when the pandemic is over, I hope you will consider visiting me. I'm in Asheville. It will take you 16 hours.

    1. I don't doubt it. Still, Asheville remains way up there on my list. See you when this is over!

  2. I enjoyed the map, Bob. It’s hilarious. That picture that looks like a snake might actually be a mountain pass.

    Here’s another way not to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains: The salesman in my recently documented bank fraud case owned a Cessna. On a bright, sunny day he invited me to fly from Harrisonburg, Virginia to Washington, DC.

    We took off, ascended, headed east… headed east… headed east…

    We could look down and see the plane’s shadow on the ground going nowhere, even occasionally slipping backward. Winds aloft clearly exceeded a hundred knots. After half an hour of going nowhere, he turned back, landed, and we drove it.

    1. Hah! I need to add wind danger to my map.

  3. I’m like you, typically writing out a dozen or more versions. Sometimes the pieces won’t slip into place and I set it aside to try again. Recently, I returned to one of my earliest stories and after another COVID-induced period of concentration, feel like I’ve finally cracked it. I welcome the great advice, Bob, especially “I’m still thinking about me, not a reader.”

    Your advice vis-à-vis The The words and extending them to then, they, etc. strikes a chord. I’ve been paring back ‘the’s, but I recently experienced an editor plugging more back in. Hmm…

    1. Thanks much, and I'm glad this was helpful. Sometimes, you just need the word, and I read plenty of good novels that have plenty of "the" all through them. If it works, it works. My stuff usually goes for a voice or style, so it matters more to me than others, likely.

      I got the idea from entering a writing competition several years ago. The person running things basically warned all entrants about "the" usage and how it doomed your work. As example, one entrant story consisted 10% of that word. I laughed and said, "Surely, not my stuff." So I searched. It was closer to that mark than I cared to see. I've paid attention to it ever since.

  4. Bob, (1) I used to live in Bristol, and I know what you mean - we'd drive over to Asheville to look at the leaves in autumn, the redbuds in spring, etc., and it always took forever to get there.
    (2) I'm so relieved to hear that I'm not the only one with 50 versions of the same damn story on my hard drive.
    (3) Every time I get into the "I can't do this! I'm no good at this!" (generally around draft 15+) I remind myself, "You've done it before, you can do it again." And then I go for a walk and/or a drink and get back to it.

    1. Yes! That's it on all 3 counts. It's about keeping at it.

  5. If you ever decide to quite writing (please don't decide to do that) I am sure you have a career as an illustrator. This post is picture perfect. I am a little concerned (about my own writing) when I notice in this post and comments that real writers save every version of each story. Not me. Once I send it out, earlier versions get deleted. Of course, a letter complaining to a company about something or other that was resolved eight or nine years ago, lives on my hard drive forever. Maybe I am a better whiner than I am a writer!!

    1. Terrie, I am not done yet. And I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      I save versions for posterity (it feels good to have a thick file) and in case anyone ever questions provenance. I have thrown deleted stories or thrown out mark-ups if a story never went anywhere from early inception. But if it's published, I keep all the files and printed drafts.

  6. Bob, this is the post we should all show those people who think they could write a story easily if they only had the time, because they have such a great idea. You make the integrity of a real writer's work so clear. I said WORK.

  7. On the mile post.... if you add the extra miles. I'm struggling with a story -- think I'll run a find on The. Thanks!

  8. Wonderful, Bob! I love your analysis on your writing---I've said the same thing about mine! And my Brother used to live in a little lakeside community: eight winding, twisted miles to the nearest grocery/pharmacy/convenience store/gas station!


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