Talking Heads

couplewithsquareKaitlyn Dunnett here. Earlier this month I finished the first of numerous drafts of what will eventually be published in 2016 as the tenth Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Kilt at the Highland Games. My preferred name for this version is the “rough draft” because it is, indeed, very very rough writing. Other writers have other names for it, many of them scatological. This is the draft that no one else will ever see, the one that reads like the work of a rank amateur, full of typos, continuity errors, and other even more egregious sins. A few extremely rare individuals are able to write just one nearly perfect draft the first time around. I suspect this is because they were revising in their heads as they wrote. I also suspect they’d register at genius level on an IQ test.

I am not one of them.

computer-writing-298x300Like most writers I know, I slog through this initial effort wondering how I ever thought I could write anything longer or more complicated than a grocery list. It’s tough to keep going, knowing that what I’ve already put down on paper is garbage. Partway through, I do go back and fix a few things. I move some scenes around and add others. I might even insert a clue, if I’ve thought of some twist that will be important later in the story. For the most part, though, I force myself to keep plodding along, moving steadily toward the end of the novel. My chapters generally consist of three scenes. I try to rough out at least one new scene each day. I don’t aim for a specific word count, although most days I seem to end up with 1000 to 1500 new words. They aren’t great words, you understand, but each one brings me closer to completing a draft of the novel.

My rough drafts are always considerably shorter than the finished book. Each time I revise, the word count goes up. My contract for the Liss MacCrimmon series requires that the manuscript I send in be between 75,000 and 100,000 words in length. I’ve had some rough drafts come in at around 70,000 words. Others were closer to 60,000. In every case, during revision, I had no trouble hitting 75,000, although my books don’t tend to be much longer than that. The word count at the end of the day I officially wrote the last scene in the last chapter of Kilt at the Highland Games for the first time was 50,829.


And yet, not a crisis. I already have ideas for beefing up the subplot, which kind of fell by the wayside as I concentrated on the primary mystery, a case that involves both missing persons and murder. It would have been nice to start revising with a longer rough draft, but it’s not an impossible task to add another 25,000 words. How? Well, not by throwing in any old words just to get the word count up. That’s called padding and it is always painfully obvious to readers. No, a big part of the solution lies in looking at all those scenes that, at present, consist of talking heads.

bubblegroup (300x154)You know the ones I mean—two or three characters are together somewhere. Maybe they are meeting to exchange information, or one is interrogating the other, or this is just a casual encounter but the dialogue contains a clue that will be important later. Whatever the reason, they talk. The dialogue is written. Maybe it will need a little tweaking, but essentially what they say to each other moves the story forward. But therein lies the problem—these scenes are almost all dialogue. Talking heads. There’s no sense of place. There are no indications, other than in the words they speak, of how the characters feel about or react to each other. Without descriptive, especially sensory, details, scenes with talking heads are flat and uninteresting, no matter how important the information in the dialogue.

As I revise, that’s what I’ll be looking for—not details to pad but details that enhance. I’ll be trying to imagine what each character sees and hears, what impinges upon him or her as the dialogue continues. There are endless possibilities. Is it raining? Uncomfortably hot and humid. Dusty? This novel is set in July, so I won’t have to wonder if they freezing their butts off trying to find privacy by slipping outside in mid-February, but whenever a story is set, the physical environment should play a role.

Outside NOWThat includes other people. Who else is around, both near at hand and at a distance? Are there animals in the scene? And what about the sound the speakers hear? Does something momentarily distract one of the characters from an exchange of words? Maybe what’s important to mention is that a character sees or hears something but doesn’t pay attention to it at the time. Whether it’s with action, descriptive details, physical reactions, or the addition of the thoughts of the point of view character, scenes that feature taking heads can be salvaged . . . and so can the roughest of rough drafts.

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5 Responses to Talking Heads

  1. This is the post I needed to read today, Kathy/Kaitlyn. Thank you for your willingness to discuss your process. Mine is somewhat similar, but it is still new to me. Hearing from someone with your deep experience helps enormously.

  2. Edith says:

    Thanks, Kathy! This morning I typed The End on a manuscript ten thousand words too short. And I know it will be no problem bringing it up to the required 75000-80000 words. Happens every time.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Kathy, I cannot tell you how heartening it is to me that your process is so similar to mine.

    I also call my first draft a rough draft (in my head). I have to do that to give myself permission to write so badly. And it is always too short. With the second and third books when it became obvious my first draft would be about 50,000 words, I went into a death spiral and almost couldn’t finish. But now I trust myself a little more.

    I have the same issues of “floating heads” in the draft, not to mention inconsistency to the point of incoherence. And terrible, terrible prose. But as long as I know what’s going on, that’s all that matters. As you say, no one else will ever see it.

  4. Lois Bartholomew says:

    So much good information here. Thanks for taking the time to share and teach.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Update: April 4-5, 2015 | Maine Crime Writers

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