Friday, February 11, 2011

Play Dead

As I write this, mystery novelist Harlan Coben’s “latest” book, Play Dead, is on the stands. On the very first page is a warning by Coben that Play Dead is one of his first books, written more than 20 years ago--before he became, in the words of Forbes, “a suspense maestro.”
I love Coben’s books and can’t wait for a new one, but I heeded the warning in Play Dead for weeks. Then the other day I went out in a snowstorm because I’d finished the novel I was reading and couldn’t go a day without a book. Cold, blustery weather like that will make you wish you could reach for an e-reader instead of the car keys.
Once I arrived at Borders and knew how slick the roads were, I didn’t want to linger. I went no farther than the C’s in the mystery section, plucked out Play Dead, and in minutes was on my way home.
Coben is right about the book. I knew it two pages in. Though the story may end up having the energy he attributes to it, the book is overwritten, full of clichés, and predictable. I sat at my kitchen table that day thinking what fun it would be to edit Play Dead. The irony was that my own book manuscript was awaiting me upstairs. At 3,800 words over my publisher’s limit, it was screaming for an edit, too.
Instead of planting myself at the computer where I belonged, I was ready to take a pen to Play Dead for the rest of the afternoon. Why?
Rewriting a book is like tackling a home improvement project: You have to make a mess before you see the improvement. Ruthless self-editing is frustrating, confusing, and exhausting. Deleting words can break your heart. The process isn’t called “killing your babies” for nothing.
I could see what to do with Coben’s book; I had no stake in it. But instead of following my whim to “edit” a published book, I came upstairs and worked on my own manuscript, hoping that one day it would bring a fraction of the success that Harlan Coben’s wonderful novels have had. Now I understand that he’s earned it.


  1. Jane -- I just discovered your blog. Saw you were going to be at Joseph Beth -- and wondered, "Is that the Jane Congdon I know?" And it is!

    Thank you for the comments about self-editing. I know exactly what you mean.

    I am a fan. Ann Jordan

    1. Oh, my gosh! Why am I just seeing this at 4:16 a.m. on November 14, 2014? That's what insomnia does; it drives us to find things to do in the small hours when no one else is awake. I was reading my old blog posts when I came upon your comment, Ann. Thank you so much! I had seen that "Ann" was following my blog, but I didn't know it was you. Glad I found your note!