Thursday, May 24, 2012

How I wrote an action/thriller through editing - Matt Chatelain Guest Blog

I had no idea my story 'The Caves of Etretat, would end up a rollercoaster action/thriller when I started writing it, five years ago. It wasn't supposed to be a four-book series.  I didn't know about pace or characters. I was just writing my first book. There wasn't much introspection about it at all.
It was editing's fault, not mine. I barely had anything to do with it.
It started simply enough, with a rejection. I'd sent a query to a specific agent, my first attempt. I was refused but the refusal came accompanied by a few suggestions, indicating my story couldn't sell as a first work because it was too long.  It needed to lose thirty thousand words. I sent a reply email saying I could reduce it to one hundred and twenty thousand words in two weeks.
I'd never reduced a novel before but it seemed a simple enough task. My only concern was that the story not be weakened. I preferred removing extraneous details and small scenes not integral to the plot. It took me three weeks. The agent agreed to look at the first fifteen thousand words. She rejected it again, saying there was no pace.
There was an intrinsic weakness to 'The Caves of Etretat'. It didn't have an antagonist. I had a bunch of guys going around, discovering stuff. Big deal. Where was the excitement in that? I'd created a couple of fake antagonists who ended up being friends later. I needed something stronger.
Other things were happening. I was doing research to provide more accuracy to the story. I started with the Oak Island treasure, continuing with Etretat, the bizarre tourist town in France, with its giant cliffs and their hidden tunnels. Maurice Leblanc, who lived in Etretat and the author featured in my story, had written books full of codes, hidden from the average reader. When deciphered, the codes sent you investigating Rennes-le-Chateau and the priest Berenger Sauniere.
Rennes-le-Chateau and Sauniere were at the center of the biggest controversy in our century, epitomised by such books as 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' and 'The Da Vinci Code'. How had I ended up here? I'd wanted to write a story like Dan Brown's but not the same story. Even more curiously, the research was pointing me towards my earliest book, 'The Greyman', an attempt to express my views about the illusory nature of reality in an action format.
More connections evolved, linking to 'The Caves of Etretat'. An antagonist appeared like no other I'd found before. Story elements drifted, linking in radical new ways. I would need a bridging book… no… two bridging books. It could be done but I'd have to re-write book one.
That was the second of over ten eventual re-writes, while I wrote the rest of the series.
I added another twenty thousand words to the story, placing antagonist-related sections between the research sections with my guys. It gave readers (and my characters) a pressure to go on. If my main character, Paul Sirenne, didn't find the answers, the Shadow-Killer would attack and kill him. After all that writing, the story was too long, so I shaved it back down to one hundred and fifteen thousand words, still keeping the storyline intact.
This was my first lesson about pace. The more details I took out, the faster the story went. My story had a current, carrying the reader on, no matter where they dropped into the story. Storyline became everything. Details became sparse. Eventually, I compared my story to a bobsled run. When the bobsled hit the side, that was a detail, just enough to get you back on track.
I'd taken two and a half years to write book one. Book two took one year, book three, eight months. I was getting better. I could assemble a novel's storyline more easily. Characters were developing their own voices, instead of the ones I tried to give them, prompting more re-writes of book one. Each book of the series was an improvement on the previous, with leaner, tighter text and faster pace. The scope expanded with each book, until they became distinct levels from each other.
In 2011, I submitted 'The Caves of Etretat' to the Amazon Breakthrough contest (it got to quarter-finals). One week later, my brother read it for the first time. His reaction was:
"It's terrible. No one can read that. It's not the story, the story's good. It's your writing."
I'd just finished writing book four, in six months, feeling fantastic. I put it away, depressed for days. Of course, I couldn't give up. I got back to the computer desk and started editing with a vengeance. I worked on it for eight months, reviewing book one six times. The process revealed more about me than the book. I had filled the book with hesitations and sentence crutches.  Useless sentence bits like 'I felt that I could…' or 'It seemed that he was…' proliferated in the paragraphs.
Many sentences intended to say something but the words weren't doing the job. I streamlined every sentence with new-found skills. I learned to be brave, to let sentences stand on their own, without crutch words. I found new ways to present action sequences, improving the pacing. 'The Caves of Etretat' ended up at one hundred and eight thousand words. I had removed over sixty-five thousand words.
 The task continued in book two. My brother was editing my edits and returning it to me, a counterpoint to my efforts. One day, I noticed he was finding one problem per page, while I was noticing several problems per paragraph. I had improved again, forcing me to go back and do more edits on what I had already done. I had discovered Quantum Editing, the process where the act of changing the novel changes the editor, forcing more changes on the book, forcing more changes on the editor… etc.
Finally it was finished, if such a task ever finishes. 
It was all there: the story, the pace, the scope, and, most of all, the answers to man's most important question 'Why are we here?', mixing religion with history, history with illusion, and illusion with reality. Book one covers one hundred years and reads like an action/thriller, focused on Etretat (think 'The Da Vinci Code' with an edge). Book two (The Four Books of Etretat) takes off like a rabbit, covering thirty thousand years. It involves the rest of the world in Sirenne's adventures, introducing immortality, the worst serial killer you could imagine, and questions about the nature of reality. Book three (The One Book of Etretat) covers sixty-five million years, bringing quantum physics, religion, and all history, into the fold. Book four (The Greyman) starts at the beginning of the universe and finishes at the beginning of book one, explaining the reasons for everything, seen through the eyes of an immortal Paul Sirenne.  Because of the circular nature of the series, book one can be re-read following book four. It becomes book five, continuing the story and revealing hidden layers.
The last six years have been a non-stop learning experience. I was always working at the edge of my abilities, never sure I would succeed. The series taught me much more than how to write a thriller or how to edit. It taught me about life's deepest questions, providing the answers I had sought for so long. Those answers can be found buried in the series, a message of hope and inspiration.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Sirenne Saga series, please check out my website . Books one and two ('The Caves of Etretat' and 'The Four Books of Etretat') are available at Kindle, as Ebook, or at Amazon, as hardcopy. My website has audio excerpts, character/author interviews, and much more. I also hold a free monthly draw for signed copies of the published series. All it takes is a few minutes to register. Check my website for dates and prizes.
All four books will be released in 2012. I plan my next two books to be a further exploration into the thriller/action genre, hoping to write an ultimate treatment to surpass Matt Reilly's 'Ice Station'. In the subtext, the series will deal with man's obsession with money, the problems it brings, and one potential solution. I will deepen my exploration of characters, intent on honing my writing skills.
I may even edit 'The Caves of Etretat' again!

The Caves of Etretat
by Matt Chatelain


In 2007, Canadian bookstore owner Paul Sirenne is suddenly thrust into a quest for answers, when his parents are found brutally murdered, their bodies cut up and shaped into the letters H.N. Finding a note inside his father's copy of 'The Hollow Needle', by Maurice Leblanc, Sirenne is determined to uncover the roots of his long-forgotten family secret.

He heads to the town of Etretat, France, on the trail of a hundred year old mystery hidden in the pages of the 'Hollow Needle'. Falling in love with Leblanc's great-granddaughter, he deals with puzzles, theories, codes and historical mysteries, leading him to believe that Leblanc held a secret war against Adolf Hitler, fighting for the control of an incredible complex of caves hidden in Etretat's chalk cliffs.

'THE CAVES OF ETRETAT' is the first in a four-book epic adventure following Paul Sirenne, an average man unknowingly manipulated into becoming the key in the final phase of a complex conspiracy spanning millennia. Inextricably woven into history, the series re-writes everything we know in a non-stop rollercoaster of a ride where nothing is ever as it seems.



While I drove toward my father's place, my rear view mirror allowed me the occasional glimpse of a familiar vehicle and its driver, Norton. His companions were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was intent on protecting me but I doubted it. His comments had seemed disjointed to me, despite the circumstances. Everything he said had come across insincere, as if he were following another agenda. I resolved to ignore him for the time being. Let him do his watching.

To some, police protection might seem comforting. To me, it felt like an irritant. I preferred to mind my own business and for others to do the same, even in dire circumstances. That way I hurt no one and no one got hurt. I almost changed my opinion when I arrived at my father’s house. Even Norton's company would have been preferable to that of my own thoughts. I hurried up the entrance staircase and stopped in front of the door, taking a deep breath. I felt frozen in place, unable to open it.

Breaking the spell and forcing myself to move, I removed the police tape with a trembling hand and entered, closing the door behind me. I looked around the entrance hallway. Everything looked normal but it felt wrong, empty, too quiet. I walked into the living room and there it was: the bloody outline of the H and the N. I was horrified by the bloodstained dots after each gruesome letter, knowing what had left those imprints.

Seized by a sudden, irresistible impulse, I ran to the kitchen, filled a large bucket with hot water and picked up a heavy bristle brush.

Those stains had to go!

I returned to the living room, trying to stay calm, to think nothing about what the stains represented. I knelt down, splashed some water on the floor, and began scrubbing the dark stains. I didn’t care if I scratched the wood. At some point, I started crying in great, wracking sobs, the tears streaming down my cheeks, dripping onto the bloodstains on the floor.

By the time I was done, my tears had dried, evaporated by a burning resolve unlike any I had before. I did not know how, I did not know when, but I would catch that monstrous killer. He would pay for what he had done.


AUTHOR Bio and Links:

Born in Ottawa, fifty-two years ago, I have been the owner of a used bookstore I opened in Ontario, since 1990. I have been writing since I was ten. Beginning with poetry, I quickly moved on to short stories and non-fiction pieces. I stayed in that format for many years, eventually self-publishing a franchise manual (How to Open Your Own Used Bookstore), as well as a variety of booklets, such as 'How to Save Money at Home', 'Build a Greenhouse with Style' and the ten booklet series of Eddy Brock, Brockville Detective.

Having semi-retired from the bookstore, I embarked on the project of writing my first serious novel, which I expanded to a four book series after discovering an incredible mystery hidden within Maurice Leblanc's books.

My interests are eclectic. I like Quantum Physics, Cosmology, history, archaeology, science in general, mechanics, free power, recycling and re-use. I'm a good handyman and can usually fix just about anything. I'm good with computers. I love movies, both good and bad, preferring action and war movies. I can draw and paint fairly well but am so obsessed with perspective and light that I cannot think of much else. I am too detail oriented. Takes too long to finish anything.



Matt will be awarding a $20 Amazon GC to one randomly drawn commenter during the tour. To increase your chances of winning, visit here to see the list of tour dates.


marybelle said...

Yes, you need an antagonist or major obstacles or conflict. Hurdles for the characters to overcome.


Goddess Fish Promotions said...

Thank you for hosting Matt today.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wow, now that is persistence! Sounds like your work went through the same process a lump of coal does to become a diamond.

Matt Chatelain Author said...

Hi Alex, yes it was just like that. The original version bears little resemblance to the end product. However, it was a formative process. I was going through my own growth and the books were a cathartic aspect of that. The questions Paul asks in the last book: Why are we here?, and Is the universe real? were my questions. At one point, just before book four, my mother died. Her death (in a free story 'The Year Mom Died' on instrumental in teaching me key concepts necessary to finish the series.
The process seemed endless but I have learned a lot from it. My next novels are not going to require the formation again. It's all done. My six years of school is over.
Of course, that was primary school.

Anonymous said...

I'm always impressed and amazed at prolific writers...I don't know if I could reach 20,000 words in the first place, let alone get to the point where I could cut that many!


Matt Chatelain Author said...

Hi vitajex

A thousand words a day can produce a complete book in less than three months. It's not by looking at the end number, it's how much you can write in a day.

MomJane said...

It was really interesting reading about how you rewrote and redid this book. You did a great job.

Matt Chatelain Author said...

Thanks Momjane.

Catherine Stine said...

That is certainly one way of polishing a story! I've gone through that kind of edit/drafting myself.

Angela Ackerman said...

Wowsers! That is one hardcore critic brother, but honestly I'd take one of those over a bunny fluff 'oh this is fabulous!' one any day.

What a long road and a lot of work, and boy, you wrote a ton! But you also learned a ton, and that's what leads to success! Congrats!