Posted by on Dec 31, 2009 in Conway Sax, Writing | 1 comment

Hey, you know those insipid “by the numbers” pieces newspapers and magazines do at the end of the year (not to mention decade)? This is one of them!

(Inside former-journo scoop, although you probably figured this out long ago: the reason periodicals love end-of-year wrapups is that you can prepare them well in advance, then get the hell out of Dodge for the last week of the year.)

The headline above is the number of brand-spanking-new words I wrote in 2009. I was a bit disappointed at the tally; Stephen King writes chunks of homespun dialog longer than my total for the year.


Today and tomorrow I’ll explain how those words break down and why they don’t tell the full story:

36,225 of the new words polished off Purgatory Chasm, the third Conway Sax novel, which I began in fall 2008. This was my longest book yet, at a hair under 80,000 words total. Moreover, it included two separate bouts of heavy rewriting.

The first bout came when Janet Reid, my tireless and superb agent, gave me a roundup of editor feedback on Shotgun Lullaby, the first Conway Sax book. I wrote that book (and indeed planned to write the whole series) in a heavy-duty staccato style, often called telegraphic (think James Ellroy). While many acquiring editors liked this style themselves, they questioned whether readers would.

Me, I want to sell books. Lots of ’em. So Janet and I decided that while the moment had passed for Shotgun Lullaby, it would be worth my while to rewrite the second Conway, Dirty Pictures, as well as Purgatory Chasm (which was then about half done), in a more conventional style – fewer colons, more commas, even an adjective or two (but no adverbs!).

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I lost a couple of months’ worth of fresh work on Purgatory because I was rewriting it and Dirty Pics. (Parenthetical comment: the rewrites were a complete success and an example of an agent handling a thankless task. So brilliantly did Janet persuade me to change the style that I damn near convinced myself it was my own idea.)

The second bout of heavy lifting on Purgatory was more typical and more painful. In April, upon finishing and reading the first draft, I came to the unpleasant realization that I’d screwed the thing up. In Acts 1 and 2 I had hung all the right guns on the wall, but in the final act I’d either left them unfired or popped off weak, ineffective shots over my shoulder – like a French infantryman.

That was a rough moment. I have no fear of rewrites (I was primarily an editor for many years before becoming a writer), but Purgatory essentially needed an entirely new Act 3, to the tune of 25,000 words. And the bizarre personal accounting system I use in tallying words held that because I was rewriting, I did not get to count that new Act 3 as fresh words.

Make sense? Not to me, either, but there it is.

Semi-happy ending: I did what needed to be done, and Purgatory Chasm is my best book to date. Why is this only semi-happy? Because the doggone thing hasn’t sold, so only I, Janet and my wife know how good it is.

Tune in tomorrow when, between college bowl games, I’ll continue my little apologia. I’ve got 38,713 words yet to explain!