Please continue reading only if: 1) you've already read The Twin's Daughter; 2) you never intend to read The Twin's Daughter but you're curious about the creative process in general; 3) you haven't read The Twin's Daughter and still do intend to, but you're the sort of person who could have seen The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense while knowing the trick ending in advance and still could have enjoyed it.
OK, if you're still here then it's all right for you to read what follows, spoilers and all.
The Twin's Daughter, to refresh your memories, is about a teenage girl in Victorian England, Lucy Sexton, who discovers that her gorgeous society mother has an identical twin who was raised in the poorhouse. Aunt Helen comes to live with the family and over time, with grooming and tutoring, Aunt Helen comes to so closely resemble Lucy's mother, Aliese, that sometimes it's difficult to tell the two women apart. Then, halfway through the novel, Lucy comes across a horrific scene:
At first, I didn't know what I was looking at: all that red, so much red, splattered behind them like a wall of flames.
For the longest moment, I could not take in the size of what I was seeing, had to force myself to narrow my focus on what was right in front of me.
It was Mother and Aunt Helen, lashed side by side to straight-backed chairs, separated by no more than a foot of space.
At first, I thought they must both be dead. All that red, all that red - how could anyone survive it?
The one on the left's head was flung back at an impossible angle, as though it were only hanging on to the body by a thread, a bath of blood drenching the front of her dress.
The one on the right was covered in blood too, but I saw now that this one was merely splattered with it, as though she had been painted in it, not drenched. The one on the right's eyes were open - I saw that now - but they were staring straight ahead as though blind, taking in nothing.
The one on the left was dead - there was no way she could not be - but this one was yet alive.
But which one is it? my mind suddenly, silently screamed. WHICH ONE?
That question - "WHICH ONE?" - drives the rest of the story.
In the original version, Lucy concludes based on evidence that her mother is the survivor. As time goes on, her mother begins to act strangely but because of that evidence - conclusive to Lucy - there's no reason for her to ever suspect that she's mistaken. Not, that is, until her own wedding day near the end of the novel, when "Mother" fails to remember a line often repeated between them - the kind of thing no mother would ever forget - and Lucy realizes that it's been Aunt Helen all along, which in turn leads Lucy to discover that Aunt Helen herself orchestrated that bloody scene that took Aliese's life.
Now, let me say here, I was fine with that version. It was the way I had originally conceived the book from the start. I did think that readers would begin to suspect Aunt Helen not long after the murder but that this would be OK. After all, in suspense novels, it's often the case that the reader does know who the guilty party is. The most important thing is that the protagonist does not know, and that it's credible that she does not, leaving the suspense for the reader in watching the protagonist move toward revelation, encountering danger along the way. Think of a book like John Grisham's The Firm. Any reader with half a brain knows from the minute Mitch goes on that job interview that he's walking into a nest of vipers but there's no reason for him to see that yet, and the suspense for the reader is in watching him discover what he's got himself into and just how bad it is.
But one of the difficulties in writing a suspense novel is that, since the writer knows where the story is going, it's impossible to assess on one's own how it will be experienced by the reader: If the reader, early on, suspects what's really happening, will it be suspenseful enough?
It was at this stage that I called in outside readers: a woman who does professional freelance editing and writes reviews for major newspapers; a freelance writer who regularly writes pieces for Writer's Digest; novelsts in the U.S. and the UK; readers who tend to read anything I write no matter what the genre or intended age group. My questions when they finished were basic: Did you guess correctly in advance who the real guilty party was? And if you did guess, did that spoil the suspense for you?
The answers: Some had guessed almost immediately, some had gone back and forth throughout the book, some were so caught up in Lucy's own vision that they had not guessed at all until she finally did. And no matter what an individual reader's answer was to the first question, they all thought it was plenty suspenseful.
So - yea! - I had a viable book, one that was suspenseful enough. All these amazing readers said so. I didn't need to change a thing.
Except that then I started thinking, "What if...?" What if I switched things around so that the ending was now a surprise even to me?
And that's what I ended up doing. I went back into the book and tweaked just enough things so that Lucy herself has reason to, after first concluding Aliese has survived, decide that it's really Aunt Helen. But then, on Lucy's wedding day, rather than someone not remembering a line that they should, someone speaks a line that they could never possibly know. And Lucy realizes in that moment that her mother is the one who survived, but unfortunately, as she also soon realizes, her mother is a murderer.
I've been fortunate to receive mostly positive reviews for The Twin's Daughter, some extremely positive. Almost every one mentions the shocking twist at the end. Would I have still received good reviews with the original ending? At the risk of commiting the crime of hubris, I like to think I would have - the overwhelming majority of the book is the same as it was on the very first draft - but nothing like this. I doubt the original version would have ever garnered the following review from The Allure of Books: "...when the summary says that this book will keep you guessing to the very end - it ain't kidding. This plot will have you so twisted up in knots that you will be devouring it to get to the end. It is really rare to find a mystery where you aren't mostly certain what the outcome will be, and The Twin's Daughter is the answer to that problem."
Sometimes when you write a book, the first version is really the best version. But other times, if you give things a little thought, push a little deeper, you can subvert readers' expectations and wind up with something so much better: a book that actually surprises people.
Be well. Don't forget to write.