My new novel, What A Mother Knows, started out as a literary masterpiece – or so I thought. I wrote it for my thesis project when I earned my MFA. The story is about a woman who wakes up from a deadly car accident only to find she is accused of murder and her daughter, the only one who knows what happened, is gone. It was fun playing with the prose, so I devised two story lines that alternated between past and present until they met up at the end. The result was dark and angsty – I loved it. But my friends had trouble remembering the details from one storyline to the next.
I put it aside to write a quick commercial novel, Wife Goes On, which I sold from the outline along with a screenplay on the same concept. But I couldn’t let go of this story, so I decided to rewrite it with a strong narrative drive to make it more exciting and more accessible to readers – a marriage of commercial and literary fiction. Ultimately, it was a detective story: this woman was desperate to find her daughter and to clear her name. She also had everything to risk, which made it a thriller. Time for the wrecking ball.
I started by smashing the story apart to make a scene list. Then I put the scenes in order. The main story had to be a present time page-turner, so I combined past scenes that had the same character having a revelation and used flashbacks only to help the character take action. By reordering, combining, and eliminating scenes, the story got stronger. Each character’s motivation was clearer, so the plot got thicker, and the revelations came faster. Boom, boom, boom! Then my agent asked me to develop the medical and legal themes, so I revised it again.
When she sold it, my new editor asked me to take out 100 pages. Of course, you can’t just lop off 100 pages of a tightly woven tale, so I went back to the wrecking ball and broke it down, scene by scene. Next, I make a list of revelations, to make sure everything was accounted for. Then I built it up again into a strong story.
It’s the same story, but better. And it’s a page-turner. Read What A Mother Knows and let me know if you find any holes. I dare you!
Leslie Lehr is a Now Write! Fiction contributor, and the prize-winning author of the novels What A Mother Knows, 66 Laps and Wife Goes On, plus three nonfiction books, including Welcome to Club Mom. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and anthologies such as Mommy Wars. She was the screenwriter of the romantic thriller, HEARTLESS and wrote Club Divorce for Lifetime TV. Leslie has a BA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, an MFA from Antioch, teaches in the world renowned Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and works as a private manuscript consultant. For more information, go to leslielehr.com. You can follow Leslie on Twitter and Facebook.