Monday, January 14, 2008

Q&A: Lessons From a Rewrite, Part 1



As I said last week, I've been working on a rewrite of a book I wrote 2 years ago called THE MAZE RUNNER. It's the book that got me an agent but didn't sell. Well, a month ago, I got a wonderful editorial letter with suggested changes, asking that I only rewrite the first 50 pages and they would consider me for publication.

This is a different publisher than the one for THE 13TH REALITY (coming in March!). It's a long story, and I'll tell it if the thing actually sells.

Anyway, I was shocked, mortified, petrified, bamboozled, and stinkified to see how poorly the original version of MAZE was written. At least, poor compared to the strides I've made in my writing the last couple of years. The editor nailed everything, and I basically rewrote 80 percent of the old stuff and added a bunch of new stuff. This may be a multi-parter post, but I thought I would share some of the lessons I've learned from this rewrite: things that are vital to a good story.

And note: I'm doing this before having any clue if the new version is good enough to be purchased by the publisher. Also, there's really nothing new here, just lessons that hit home for me. So take it for what it's worth.

LESSON NUMBER ONE: Differentiate your characters.

This book is about a bunch of boys who have been sent to live in a massive complex that is basically a big maze. Think ENDER'S GAME meets LORD OF THE FLIES meets HOLES, three of my favorite books. Throw in a little LOST, too. It's all a vicious and cruel experiment, but I won't get into the plot too much. Back when I wrote it, I wanted to make the characters really cool and funny, rebellious and hot tempered. I failed miserably.

What I ended up with were lots of boys with the exact same personality. None of them had distinguishing traits, quirks with their language, odd habits - nothing to make one different from another. My friend said it was like I'd stuck a whole bunch of Jimmy Finchers in this place, and they'd all melded together. And, as my agent said later, they sounded like an adult trying to sound like a hip kid. It was awful.

In the rewrite, I worked hard to correct this. One character is now hot tempered, speaks with a lot of slang, has no compassion for the new guy, business is business. Another character has kind of a strange scottish/jamaican mixed way of speaking, is easy going and kinder than the rest, sharp as a tack. Another character is short and fat, a smart aleck, tries to speak the cool slang but messes it up, wants everyone to be his friend. Etcetera.

This is something I'd improved on from JIMMY FINCHER to THE 13TH REALITY, and I was glad to implement it in MAZE.

LESSON NUMBER TWO: Develop the mystery/plot with patience.

Hoo-boy, is this a lesson that took me a long time to learn. Brandon Sanderson once told me something he notices with many beginning/amateur writers: their book timeline takes place in just a few days, maybe a week or two. In other words, they rush the story. Guilty as charged. All four of my Jimmy Fincher books, combined, take place in about 3 or 4 months.

I did much better with 13TH, and my rewrite of MAZE as well. The original version had this huge information dump near the beginning, where one of the blah characters takes the new kid aside and explains how everything works, why they are there, what to be afraid of, etc. It was awful.

I scratched it completely, instead having some of those same questions answered in the first 50 pages as he experiences the many cool and mysterious things about this Maze place. I left others to be answered later. In fact, take it one step further. To accomplish this in my first rewrite draft, I had the leader tell the new kid that he couldn't ask any questions, like it was a rule.

My wife kaboshed that, saying it was the classic case of TELLING not SHOWING. So instead, I created even more mystery and frustration for the main character by having him ask questions, but not really getting answered. Things happen to interrupt him, people hesitate, people change the subject, people get angry with him. My wife really helped make it better.

I forced patience into the story. I added details, in-setting dialogue, cool elements that weren't there 2 years ago. What originally happened on Page 37 now doesn't happen until Page 52. And it's much better, I think.

LESSON NUMBER THREE: Build the world with language.

The editor really nailed this one. Here these kids have been living in this other-world type place for years, and yet they spoke like snotty nosed brats at your local middle school. It was awful. She told me to invent slang and a way of speaking - something that would've developed there after different races and cultures mixed together.

This was a lot of fun for me, and I can't believe I didn't do it the first time around. The best way to show this is for me to give you an example. Then I think we'll be done for now.

The book begins with a new kid (Thomas) being sent to the Maze. He's sent in what's called The Box, a dark room that opens up after a long time, light blinding him. His first experience of the new place is a bunch of boys looking down into the Box, pointing at him and talking over each other. I showed this with a quick string of dialogue without markers. Let's do a Before and After.

BEFORE:

He heard noises above—voices.
“What does he look like?”
“How old is he?”
“He looks like a stick in a t-shirt.”
“Hurry and get the poor kid out of there.”
“Ah, man, it smells like feet down there!”
“Did they send anything else with him?”
“Welcome to paradise, sucker.”
“Hey, Newby—hope you enjoyed the one-way trip. There ain’t no ticket back, Greenie.”

AFTER:

As panic squeezed his chest, he heard noises above—voices.
“Look at that shank.”
“How old is he?”
“Looks like a bricknick in a tango.”
“Nah, snipjaw that. He’s a slopper, sho?”
“Whacker, it smells like feet down there!”
“He’s a track-hoe, you kish?”
“Welcome to paradise, baka.”
“Hope you enjoyed the one-way trip, sho? Ent no ticket back, Greenie.”

These words, and their meanings, are developed and consistent through the rest of the story.

Well, there you have it. There's more, and we'll get to it later. But I hope this can help you in some way avoid the mistakes I made the first time I wrote MAZE. Have a great day!

14 comments:

Tamra Norton said...

Can't wait to see what happens with this--very exciting!

Andy Lemmon said...

Thanks for sharing those lessons! The before and after was really cool to see.

Luisa Perkins said...

"Greenie." Snicker.

This is an excellent post! I look forward to more, O Wise One.

James Dashner said...

Thanks, guys. I hope you'll spread the word because I really feel strongly about helping aspiring writers avoid the mistakes I made and continue to make.

Marcia Mickelson said...

Thank you for sharing those great lessons. It is hard to differentiate between characters sometimes, but I have found the more I do so, the funner it is to write the thing.

La Chanson de Phoenix said...

BIG difference with the language change. Not only does it engage the reader more, but now I want to know what those words mean and/or how they got that slang in the first place. AND, it displays the environment the kids have created. Great!

Jaime Theler said...

Thanks for sharing, James!

Jeff said...

Love the author picture at the top of your blog. definitely a improvement!

James Dashner said...

Jeff, you're so hilarious. I can hardly contain my laughter. You're just jealous because my book is about to come out and you have to wait until Fall.

Thanks for all the nice words to everyone else.

Autumn Ables said...

"It was awful." {repeated...several times}

Ha! I get what your saying here. I can really see a difference in my writing from when I first started until now. Practice really does make perfect. {why does my mom always have to be right?!}

I really enjoy reading your blog, James. Not only do you share your news, updates etc...but you give tips as well and I love it! Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Whoa, I believe this will help my writing in many ways. I'm not even a teen yet, so I REALLY need to develop on the writing thing, but this is just very helpful. Thanks a bunch, James. I also really hope The Maze Runner gets published.

Michelle Garcia said...

Oh my gosh! That was so funny. I love the narration your characters have after. I thought the first one was already good but the improvement is stellar! Did you get the new word for "sucker" from the japanese word for idiot? That would be so great if you did! I love knowing the inspiration for really great works! (Wow thats a lot of exclamation points but I'm really excited!) e-mail me @ tinkerbellgirlblue21@yahoo.com so I know if I was right. Please! The suspense'll kill me. hahaa, it'd be funny if I were wrong. lol

T C Sherf said...

James,
So I'm a little over two years behind on reading this post, but I wanted to say thanks for the sound advice. I'm in the midst of writing my first book. I've been trying to finish one novel or another for years, but teaching and triplets and other distractions mean that I still haven't pushed past that finish line yet.

These rewrite guidelines really are solid. Hope you don't mind that I'm going to intentionally misplace them by using them in my first draft instead of the rewrite stage!

Best wishes!

Brit Shay said...

This post has really hit home for me! I have been working on my book for 2 years and my first draft was so incredibly horrible that I chucked the whole thing and started all over. When i think back to that first draft I want to facepalm myself. It sounded like a teeny bopper wrote it. Oh well, at least I figured it out!