Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Science of Rewrites, Geography and Good Reads

Weighty Matters

Thriller Guy was recently reading a review of a new book on touch, the name of which escapes TG who is too lazy to look it up, and found a piece of info that fits right in with one of his rules of good writing. Scientists discovered that when giving test subjects a document to review and edit on a clipboard, those subjects who had the heaviest clipboards did better work than those who had lighter. They seemed to feel, at least psychologically, the work was “weightier” and more important, so then worked harder. While not advising writers to go out and buy heavy clipboards, TG feels very strongly that rewrites are always best done in hard copy. Initial rewrites are fine on screen, but before any piece of writing leaves a writer's hand, it should have been printed out, edited with pen or pencil, reentered and then printed out and gone over at least one more time. Words on screen have no weight; words on printouts have a presence that demands attention. And final copy should be on better paper than early drafts, literally heavier and brighter than cheaper paper. Writing is serious stuff, hard work and important. Treat it thusly.


When TG was a brand new reviewer, he used to become upset by geography mistakes in thrillers. Syd Jones over at Scene of the Crime always asks his interview subjects if they have ever made any mistakes in setting for which readers have called them to task. The answer is almost always yes. This is something that most novelists dread, almost as frightening as making a gun-related mistake. (See entry below.) And yet, these mistakes are common, though over the years TG has noticed that they have become fewer and less egregious. TG lives in Washington, where an inordinate number of thrillers are set (Note to publishers: TG is heartily sick of seeing covers of thrillers featuring night photos of the Capitol Building. Please, is there no other, cleverer way of saying “Washington?”) Since TG lived in the District of Columbia for many years and now resides nearby, he is acutely aware of these geographical mistakes. One of the worst was when a writer had his hero come out of the Pentagon, go to a coffee shop across the street and then walk down the Mall to the Washington monument. Sorry, there are no coffee shops across from the Pentagon and the hero would have had to walk through the Potomac River to get to the Mall. Terrible mistake. TG has long ago stopped mentioning such errors in his reviews, but it is not wise (publishers, trust me on this) to send out a book that has errors that annoy the reviewer. So thriller writers, when you have a character set out to walk, ride or fly from one location to another, be very very careful.


Mike Lawson is an author who always gets his geography right. Mike has a series set in Washington that stars Senate investigator, political fix-it man Joe DeMarco. DeMarco has a crappy office deep in the bowels of the Capital building and answers only to his boss, John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Washington's premier political puppet master. The five books in the series, in order are: The Inside Ring; The Second Perimeter; House Rules; House Secrets; House Justice. There's no reason to read them in order, though TG suggests that you do so, that way one will keep DeMarco's various problems straight. One of the significant joys of the series is the colorful Speaker Mahoney, a Tip O'Neil politician whose outsize flaws approach if not encompass criminality.

While TG has enjoyed every one of these books, he feels that in House Justice, the most recent, Lawson is straying into a “problem” that often besets successful series writers at about this point in their work. Justice is a bit too long, a bit too complicated and a bit too serious. TG would counsel Lawson, not that he's asking, to ease up a bit both on DeMarco and on himself in his next entry in the series. Often it's a good idea to take a break and write a stand-alone (for a writer it can be a good idea, publishers hate it when a tried and true money-maker abandons a cash cow, even for one book) just to get back a little perspective on what was enjoyable about a character and setting in the first place.

Whatever Lawson does, TG will be looking forward to it. For those who want to see how good a Washington thriller can be, check him out. And you can be assured Joe DeMarco never, ever, takes a stroll through the Potomac River.


  1. I always enjoy it when I have to fly down to Washington, usually at Reagan airport. I take a $15 cab ride to the State Department. Along the way I always enjoy taking a picture or two of that pointy thing. ;)

    Seriously though - even without going places in real life, I find it's easy enough to take a similar stroll through a lot of major cities simply by using Bing or Google maps street view, you are simply - THERE. You can turn around, virtually 'walk' past any number of places.



  2. And Scene of the Crime owes TG a thanks for suggesting the howler question of its interviewees. A much belated danke.

  3. Great post. Personally, I really enjoyed HOUSE JUSTICE, with all its length and complications :)

  4. TG: It's NOT ``capital building'' but ``capitol building.'' The building is always OL, the city is always AL. For all the years, you've lived here, I am surprised!
    Most recently, the geographic error that made me nuts occurred not in a book, but in a film - `The Special Relationship' - about the UK's PM Tony Blair and his friendship with Bill Clinton. (A pretty awful movie overall, I thought, apart from the mistake - I couldn't sit through it)but the error that really turned me off was a scene showing Blair supposedly on his way (being driven) to the White House with the Capitol (OL!) building in front of him! Any dunce with half a brain who has ever lived here (or does basic research for such a movie, for crying out loud!) knows that the White House is located in the opposite direction of the Capitol Building, and, therefore, should have been behind them, not in front of them! (and depending on their starting point, shouldn't have been visible at all.) They just wanted to show a familiar Washington landmark, just like the book covers you mention. There's no excuse for such sloppiness!

  5. Ah, it's perceptive commenter Marlene, TG was beginning to wonder where she had got to. Of course she's right, the capitol building is with an OL. TG has NEVER been able to remember which is which; his editor wife has suggested that he remember it is Ol because the dome of the capitol is shaped like an O. Obviously, even this neat trick doesn't work. TG will go to his grave confusing the two, just as he will never, ever remember how to spell the word occurr. See? Did it again.