Add Sex, Rage, & Suffering, Then Stir

Writing Temper involved multiple major rounds of revision – first on my own, then with my Pitch Wars mentor, then with my agent, and finally with my editor. Looking back over the process now, there are several things that seem like such integral parts of the book, I almost can’t believe they weren’t there in the first draft. But they all came about through revision, and often as a result of other people’s brilliant ideas, not my own. It really does take a village – in my case a village of smart women in cool glasses!

The first draft of Temper was all from a single character’s point of view (Kira, who I talked about here). As I mentioned in my publishing journey post, I added the second POV character, Joanna, in a mad dash before Pitch Wars submissions, after expending thousands of words and countless hours writing in the POV of another character, who I ended up excising from the manuscript entirely. Now I can’t imagine Temper without Joanna’s voice. She’s an uptight, controlling, prickly bitch – the perfect foil for Kira’s brashness, and a lot more like me than I’d like to admit. As much as I adore Kira, sometimes I think Joanna is my real favorite character. The book just doesn’t work without her.

One of the main notes my Pitch Wars mentor Nina gave me in her edit letter was that my characters needed to suffer more. I knew she was right, and I dutifully made everything worse for Kira and Joanna. It still wasn’t enough. There was a spot in the second act of the book where the tension just fell flat, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I emailed Nina bemoaning this, and she wrote back with the perfect suggestion – something that, once she said it, seemed so obvious I wanted to smack myself in the face. There’s a prominent person in one of the main character’s backstories who’s mentioned throughout the book, and Nina asked me if I’d considered having this person actually show up in the present and stir the pot. I tried it, and not only did this fix my tension and pacing problem, it resulted in what’s now one of my favorite scenes in the whole novel.

When I had my first phone call with my agent Sharon, she mentioned a lot of things she loved about my manuscript, and one thing in particular she didn’t: the ending. It was too abrupt, she said, and lacked satisfying emotional weight. Again, as is often the way with those so-on-point-it-hurts editorial notes, I knew immediately that she was right, but I had no idea how to fix it. And I’ll be honest, it took me awhile to figure it out. I circled that ending like a vulture, revising absolutely everything else I could think of to put off dealing with it. Finally time was running out, and I had to face it. I was afraid I’d have to do a total gut job. But it turned out I didn’t have to change the events of the end of the book, or even rewrite the final chapter. I just needed a few more beats in the last scene to let the ending land for the reader, and create a memorable final image. Based on the reactions I’ve gotten so far, Temper‘s ending is a bit polarizing – people either love it or hate it. But as long as they’re left with a strong emotional reaction, I’m satisfied, and Sharon’s feedback helped me achieve that.

I could write a whole novel about all the amazing guidance I’ve gotten from my editor Kate, but I’ll just leave you with one of my favorite changes that came about during the developmental editing process with her. She identified another point in the book, this time in the third act, where the tension flagged (maintaining tension for the length of a 90+ thousand word psychological thriller is hard, y’all!). Somehow I’d managed to ignore this problem through all the other rounds of revision, but I had a couple of scenes where two characters were just, like, sitting on a couch and talking. No conflict, no drama. Not acceptable! So in the wake of Kate’s notes, I jettisoned those scenes and wrote a couple of new chapters where those characters instead got in an argument and then had angry sex in the shower. And really, if I’ve learned anything throughout the whole revision process, it’s that there’s nothing better than fixing a problem in your book by adding more sex and rage. (So I guess I’m writing the right genre, huh?)

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Layne Fargo

Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

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