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Brogan’s secret to good writing is in the rewriting

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Jan Brogan is a crime fiction writer with a confession.

“I really hate writing.”

A writer who hates writing? Like a lifeguard who hates to get wet. How can that work?

“I love rewriting,” she says. “I think a lot of people hate writing because they expect to sit down and write it great the first time.”

And that’s one of the best lessons for any new author — good writing doesn’t appear from nowhere; it’s the product of ruthless self-editing and relentless rewriting. In fact, if we chipped the Ten Commandments of Writing into stone, we would quote Jan Brogan on the first tablet:

“It’s easier to work with something bad than to come up with something brilliant.”

Brogan, who is 49 and lives and Westwood, Mass., is no stranger around Providence. She worked here at the Projo, full and part time, from the late 1980s to around 2000. She sets her books in Providence, and her investigative reporter character, Hallie Ahern, is an ink-stained scribe for a newspaper remarkably like this one.

Her third novel, Yesterday’s Fatal, was recently released by St. Martin’s.

To polish her work, Brogan puts her raw manuscripts through one of the best processes for revision that I’ve seen. She should patent her method. No wait, she shouldn’t…because I want to steal it.

Before rewriting can begin, of course, there needs to be a first draft. This is the toughest part. If you’re subject to writer’s block, this is where it happens.

“I struggle through a first draft because I’m trying to figure out the problems and make the plot work,” says Brogan. “Your brain can’t do everything well at the same time. When you’re focused on plot, which is logical and logistical, you can’t give as much time to the character depth and emotion. I let myself write badly the first draft.”

Once that draft is done, she lets it marinate in a drawer for a week. A little distance on it makes her more objective.

Next comes the fun part.

She reads the full novel with a notebook, taking detailed notes on plot points that are unclear, or description that reads flat.

At the same time, she divides the book into four acts, which break down roughly this way:

“The Setup.” Usually around the first 100 pages.

“The Midpoint.” About another 100 pages, including “the twist” that sends the protagonist in another direction.

“The Crisis!” This section ends with the climax of the novel.

“The Reflection.” This is a very short section, but can require the heaviest thinking.

“Just from note taking, all of a sudden in act 2 or 3, I realize what I’m really trying to say with this book,” says Brogan. “Then I’ll make a revision plan for act 1, saying, for example, ‘This is taking too long to get to the point here,’ or ‘This is not clear, I need to add something.’ Then I do this to acts 2, 3 and 4. From that, I do a revision plan for the whole second draft.

“Sometimes when you’re doing the revision you realize that the conflicts you had written at the beginning are kind of artificial. You were just trying to find something to move the book forward at that point. You see that in the revision plan. Something about the longhand method of taking notes helps me realize what I’m really trying to do.

“When I sit down with my revision plan and my detailed notes, I have a plan of attack. Then I do the second draft and I really have fun because I really know what I’m trying to do. It’s like the ballet – the practice work on the bar has been done and now I can dance.

“The only reason I write is for the second draft. I find each first draft more and more tortuous. I also don’t have a lot of confidence in the first draft. That process of revision gives me confidence in the book. Once I have confidence in the story, then I can really write.”

ON DISCIPLINE: “I’ve had to remove solitaire from my computer,” Brogan says. “I find that e-mail creates attention deficit. Now I check my e-mail in the morning, then I disable my wireless so that I can’t check it until later in the afternoon. That’s because e-mail is a conversation, and I’d rather have a conversation than struggle through a first draft. The second draft I don’t have to do those things because I’d rather be writing.”

APPEARANCES: Brogan will meet readers and sign books beginning at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 16 at Borders Books & Music at the Providence Place mall.

Staff writer Mark Arsenault is the author of three mystery novels, including Gravewriter, which is set in Providence.