I started off the project in early 2007 by trying an entirely new, very detailed outlining process I'd never used before, because I was so eager to get this book right. Then I attempted to Fast Draft the book in six weeks, even though my traditional approach has been to write very slowly and edit as I go. Both those new approaches ultimately turned out to be mistakes. Very bad mistakes. This was the beginning of my woes.
However, I eventually managed to whip the first 35,000 words (otherwise known as Part One) into readable shape after a couple of revisions, and felt pretty good about it. There was just one problem: I couldn't seem to make any more headway into the story. No matter what I wrote my internal editor kept insisting that it was WRONG WRONG RED ALERT VWOOP VWOOP VWOOP WRONG, and though I tried to tell myself this was just crazed perfectionism on my part, that the best thing was to ignore my misgivings and press on, I couldn't find a way around that mental block.
I threw out my original drafts of Chapters Eight and Nine and started over. I tried writing scenes from later in the book to inspire myself. I put the manuscript away for weeks, then months at a time, trying to get a fresh and hopefully more balanced perspective on it. But nothing worked.
And gradually the truth became clear: there really was something wrong with the first seven chapters, even if I didn't know what it was yet. And until I'd gone back and fixed the problem, there was no way I'd ever be able to write the rest of the story.
Still, how could I fix the problem when I didn't even know what it was? After all, I'd run those chapters past ten different beta-readers -- including two published authors and my agent -- and they all seemed to like it and be interested in reading more. Surely they couldn't be wrong!
(The answer was, of course, that they weren't wrong -- given what they knew about the story. To them it was a perfectly decent psychological thriller with a mostly realistic feel, and the promise of some good conflict and action to come. There was no reason they should expect any more of it than that -- but I knew there was a lot more to the story, and that for some reason I hadn't been able to bring that out in those chapters, and was what was bugging me.)
Fortunately, an offhand comment by anywherebeyond when I was lamenting to her about my research woes gave me the key to the whole problem -- even if it took a few weeks, indeed months, for me to see it clearly. She asked whether I couldn't just set the story earlier in my heroine's personal timeline -- having her committed to psychiatric hospital before being tried for murder, instead of afterward.
At first I resisted the idea, as it seemed like it would be a lot of work. But slowly it grew on me, as I realized that this would make the stakes higher and the tension greater -- so it might be worth the effort after all. But it wasn't until last night that it hit me what a huge mistake I'd really made in those opening chapters.
I'd been putting all the most exciting, shocking, dynamic stuff in Alison's backstory, so that by the time the book opened those experiences were no longer fresh to her. No wonder she seemed distant, and no wonder the revelation of what she'd been through didn't have the impact I'd been hoping for!
But if I moved all the action up to just after the disappearance/murder of her schoolmate, then everything is fresh and raw and new and scary for Alison -- and hopefully for the reader, as well. I can't even go into how many ways this changes the story and makes it better, how it enlivens her interactions with all the secondary characters, how it solves narrative problems I'd been fretting over for ages. Why did I EVER think it made more sense to set the book's action so late in her timeline? Just because it explained a couple of minor details later in the story? Pfft, there are other ways to handle that stuff.
So like I said in the subject line, feeling too stupid to live, but also happier about tackling another revision than I've been in a long, long time.
And thank you, anywherebeyond, for giving me the key -- even if you didn't know it, and even if it took me forever and a day to figure out how to use it to unlock the door!