Tweaking (Not Drug-Related)

December 22nd, 2015 by Max Allan Collins
Better Dead by Max Allan Collins

The work over the past week, and the work ahead during the week after Christmas, is a part of the career of writing that is little discussed. But it’s key to the process.

Over the period of a week, I read and corrected the galley pages of three novels of mine – THE BIG SHOWDOWN (the second Caleb York), ANTIQUES FATE (by Barb and me as “Barbara Allan”), and BETTER DEAD (the McCarthy-era Nate Heller). The latter is a long manuscript, almost the length of the previous two combined.

This stage marks the last chance for a writer to catch goofs, seek out typos and make final revisions and tweaks. Oftentimes, the production person scolds the writer in advance about making any changes. The attitude is that the book is finished and it would be too costly to make any changes that don ‘t address typos or outlandish errors. I ignore this admonition, although I keep my tweaking to a minimum and rarely rewrite unless I really have come across an outright error.

But these final tweaks are often the difference between a smooth read and a rough one. I noticed with BETTER DEAD something that happens too frequently in my work: the last few chapters can have a rushed quality, because I am gathering steam and racing toward the ending – much as a reader of an exciting novel reads faster, even skimming, to get to the end. In BETTER DEAD’s near 400 pages, I found next to nothing in the first 2/3’s, but quite a bit in the final third. These tweaks represent nuance via word choice and sometimes the elimination of repeated words.

To me this is vital part of the writing process – that final polish, and a read that occurs several months after the initial writing, which breeds better objectivity. True, I’ve had a chance to view the novel in the copy-edited form a month or so before the galley proofs arrive. But with a copy-edited manuscript, my focus goes to the changes that the copy editor has made, each of which has to be thought through – sometimes copy editors are right, like a stopped clock.

Next up are the galley proofs of MURDER NEVER KNOCKS (the Mike Hammer novel previously announced as DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU) and QUARRY IN THE BLACK. I also hope to put together a collection of the Mike Hammer short stories I’ve developed from shorter fragments in Mickey’s files; these have appeared in the STRAND, mostly. I’m talking about such a collection with Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press. I need to read my stories and determine what order they should appear in, and I’ll want to write an introduction.

For me it’s a luxury not to be working on a novel over Christmas week – as I often have – and attending to some of the less-glamorous aspects of the writing trade (well, there aren’t really any glamourous aspects to it, unless Hollywood buys something) is a good way to get something done without spoiling your own holiday season, and that of the others in your life.

* * *

I’ve discussed the oddity of reading current reviews of early works, but nothing tops reading a write-up about MOURN THE LIVING, which was my first novel and introduced Nolan…and was written almost fifty years ago. It’s a book I would be loathe to re-read, but in some respects it’s the most important one I ever wrote, as it’s the novel that Richard Yates read that convinced him to invite me into his Writers Workshop class at the University of Iowa. So much of my career has flowed from Yates as my mentor. On the other hand, I always like reading good reviews like this one.

Of course, Hard Case Crime has been reprinting the early QUARRY novels, but late in 2016 they will be publishing a brand-new one, QUARRY IN THE BLACK. Read about it here and get a look at the fantastic cover.

One of those QUARRY HCC reprints has made a stocking stuffers list at the Geek Hard Show. Festive little write-up!

Here’s yet another one of those “best movies that you didn’t know were based on comics” lists. But ROAD TO PERDITION is treated very nicely, so check it out.

That same website – Talking Comic Books – has an interesting podcast (well over an hour) in which a number of film buffs discuss the film of ROAD TO PERDITION in a lively fashion. One oddity, at least from my POV: the guy who says ROAD TO PERDITION is his favorite movie has never bothered to read the graphic novel. In fact, for a podcast that’s part of Talking Comic Books, one might think the graphic novel would get more than one fleeting mention. But that’s all it rates. Still, there’s some fun to be had and some intelligent commentary to be heard.

Finally – Merry Christmas! Or Merry Whatever You Celebrate, as long as it doesn’t involve sacrificing a goat.


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8 Responses to “Tweaking (Not Drug-Related)”

  1. Tom Zappe/St Louis says:

    Has anyone else noticed a more than passing resemblance between Joe McCarthy and Ted Cruz?

  2. Louis says:

    When will Better Dead be out? Any new Heller is a cause for celebration; I just want to know when to look for it.

  3. Max Allan Collins says:

    Tom, I have been fascinated by Cruz’s physical resemblance as well as his far-right nuttiness for some time now. If he climbs past Trump, he will be promoting my novel (though that may not be his goal).

    Louis, the book will be out May 3rd. I am very happy with the cover — not always the case, either.

  4. Tom Zappe/St Louis says:

    Well, if Trump can work for ISIS, Cruz can work for you.

  5. Paul.Griffith says:


    I am super excited about the coming releases!! Looking forward to reading all five novels!! And the short story compilation (making six!) is long overdue!! I love the fact the new Heller is almost 400 pages! Haven’t seen that many pages since STOLEN AWAY (500+). Although FLYING HIGH was around 340. Your hard work and dedication by working through the Holidays is appreciated and I hope rewarding. I know I always look forward to ANY new Max Allan Collins work!! But, Heller, Hammer AND Quarry? Wow!! Happy Holidays to you Barb, Nathan and his family!

  6. John Judge says:

    Max, please erase this comment if you consider it spoileresque, but I sure hope from that cover that Heller will be adding Betty Page to his list of historical conquests.

  7. Max Allan Collins says:

    Hi John —

    Indeed Bettie Page is a character in BETTER DEAD. I am very happy with that cover because for once my suggestion was followed —
    the newspaper headline approach with McCarthy and Bettie pictured was my idea and request.

  8. Sean Kelly says:

    Stolen Away was my contribution to our book club Christmas Swap. I put a note in it saying that this is my favorite mystery and one of my favorite books ever. The person who received it was thrilled because she’s ready for a good mystery.