I always find the process other writers use fascinating; I remember back in the day when I used to read books about writing (never, ever read The Art of Fiction by Robert Gardner unless you’re actually reading it for its unintentional hilarity and incredible pomposity; stick with Stephen King’s On Writing, which actually imparts wisdom born of experience, and some damned good advice) and was interested in all the different components of writing, and how different the advice was; it wasn’t until I actually began to write seriously that I realized that the best thing you can get from another’s writer’s process is to simply try the various methods as a starting point; a way to find your own way into what works for you.
That’s what I tell workshops I teach; I’ve taught many over the years and I’ve also worked with/edited many writers at the start of their careers. What works for, say, Sue Grafton–which enormously productive and successful for her–might not work for you. I have been asked any number of times what my process is; but it’s really not that simple.
You see, just as I have creative ADD whenever I’m working on something, I don’t always use the same process. Kristi Belcamino, a friend and fellow writer, asked me yesterday in a comment about my process; so here it is.
I wrote the first Chanse novel, Murder in the Rue Dauphine, (working title: Tricks) without an outline. I knew what the crime was, I knew who the killer was, and I thought I knew how to get from Point A (Chanse being hired) to Point B (unmasking the killer). After writing an enormously lengthy first draft, I realized that I’d actually gotten it very wrong; I got to Point B all right, but around Chapter Ten the book went off course and veered crazily along like a drunk driver trying to drive in a straight line and failing miserably. Even the unmasking of the killer didn’t work; I had to basically throw out the second half of the book and start it over. Starting over the second half then meant that the first half didn’t really fit with the new second half, so I had to go back and redo the entire first half of the novel. It was a long, painful process, and I thought to myself, there’s got to be a better way to do this.
So, when I started writing the second Chanse novel Murder in the Rue St. Ann (working title: Murder in the Rue Royal, changed because of the alliteration which annoyed my editor) I outlined the whole thing, from beginning to end. By doing this, I was able to see–hey, the story is getting derailed here–and could fix it before I wasted time writing a lot of material I wasn’t going to be able to use and would have to throw it and rewrite. I thought this was a much easier way to do it, frankly, and it made more sense. I was able to catch errors in the plot and fix them before I actually sat down to write the manuscript, if that makes sense. I did this, and it worked. But while this was the first novel I wrote after getting my first novel signed, it wasn’t my second novel to get published. That was Bourbon Street Blues, when I introduced a new character, Scotty Bradley.
Bourbon Street Blues was only intended to be a stand-alone, not the start of a series that has lasted now for fifteen years and eight novels (I am writing the eighth now). I pitched the idea to a different publisher instead of my original publisher, and got a two-book contract for a series. As I said, it was intended to be a stand alone, but I figured I’d deal with the series concept when it was time to do that. Having had some success with an outline, I tried something a little bit different this time. My outline for Rue St. Ann was basically a paragraph for each chapter breaking down what happens in the chapter; for Bourbon Street Blues I decided to make the outline a little more detailed; it also made sense to me that hey, if the book has to be this many words long, figure out how many chapters its going to take, divide that number by the word count, and then every chapter has to be that long, give or take. Making every chapter about the same length will also subconsciously give the reader a structure to the story without realizing what I’ve done.
The difference between this and what I’d done with the Chanse books was I started writing this longer, more detailed outline with no idea of how it was going to end, or what was going to happen. But it worked, and successive drafts was just filling in more details, etc. so that I then had a finished draft and then went back over it to tighten language, deepen character, etc. This free-wheeling style of writing seemed to work for Scotty; it was kind of who he was as a person, and so all future Scotty books were done this way; a short first draft, each successive draft making the book longer and then a final polish. Sometimes I get stuck when I’m writing Scotty and don’t know where to go next; then I go back and revise the earlier chapters and get an idea of how to go from there. Sometimes I have to outline the next five chapters, and as I struggle with that outline the answers come to me. (I am also terrified this is going to not work someday.)
So, when I start with the Chanse books I know how I am going to end the book, and have to fill in, with an outline, how to get from Point A to Point B. With Scotty I write a short first draft that’s kind of an extensive outline to get me through when I have no idea what the story is going to be or how it’s going to end. I find with Scotty I go back and revise earlier chapters a lot before it’s finished, so I am always worried later chapters don’t get as much attention as the earlier ones.
My stand-alones–the y/s and so forth–are kind of a combination; it depends on the book. If I know how it starts and I know how it ends, I do an outline to get me from beginning to end. If I don’t know how it ends, and simply have the opening premise, I do a long outline, let it come to me as I do it, and then go back and see if it works, fix what doesn’t (or at least try to), and do it over and over. I usually end up doing three drafts total, maybe four; and then do a quick polish of the final draft before turning it in.
The current WIP, that I keep talking about? I didn’t know how it was going to end, and just started writing. I knew the characters, I knew what the premise was, and basically, I was adapting a story I came up with years ago, using the characters and so forth I’d already created, only using it with a different story and a different theme. I still like the original idea I had, and I may be able to eventually turn that into telling the story I’d originally wanted to tell..but I really like this story I am telling now. I wrote the first draft in less than six weeks, total; I started writing two years ago in June and finished it in early July. I let a friend whose opinion I deeply respect read it, and she gave me some amazing notes. I went through and made some changes–the original draft was over a hundred thousand words, without a final chapter–and then I printed the whole thing out and did the line edit I’ve been bitching about for so long. But in doing all of this, I figured out how to tell the story I wanted, how to get the message I want across, and now know what changes have to be made to the manuscript for this final draft. But when I was writing the first draft, I had a goal to meet every day: three thousand words every day. Sometimes I met it, sometimes I went over it, sometimes I didn’t come close. But writing the book was very organic; it literally came to me as I wrote it. And this weekend I am going to spend some time reading this leaner draft and figuring out where to put the things I need to add to it, and then write the final chapter. The goal was to start submitting it to agents on October 1; I think I’m going to make it.
Incidentally, this current Scotty? I started outlining the next five chapters…but by the time I finished the second chapter of this outline I knew what Chapter Six needed, and so I started writing it.
Sigh. Does that make sense?
I also try to write something every day–my goal for every day is to write 2500 words minimum, on something. On good days I can get that done in two hours; on bad days it can take me, off and on, all day; on the worst days I don’t do anything. But it’s something I try to maintain; whether it’s the manuscript I am working on, or a short story in progress, an essay; I try to write something every day. I have about ten short stories in progress right now, and ideas for many many more. I don’t use the same process with short stories; they are much harder for me because often I know the set-up and have the idea for the beginning, and sometimes when I don’t know the ending it comes to me while I am writing it and I am able to finish a first draft. Other times I get stuck and it gets put aside for awhile. Sometimes I come back to them, sometimes I never do. Right now, I have the following short stories in progress: “The Gates of Guinee,” “Fireflies,” “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” “The Brady Kid,” “The Rosary of Broken Promises,” “For All Tomorrow’s Lies,” “This Thing of Darkness,” “Circumstance,” “The Weight of a Feather,” “The Terrortorium,” “Quiet Desperation,” “Never Kiss a Stranger,” “Passin’ Time,” “Closing Time,” “The White Knuckler,” “The Ditch,” and “The Weeping Nun.” I hope to finish them all someday; maybe some of them will never be finished. I also have several other book ideas I want to write at some point; one is a horror novel with no title, and I have some (what I think) are terrific ideas for some. I also have an idea for another Scotty book.
Damn, just thinking about all this made me really tired.
Here’s a Throwback Thursday hunk for you, Constant Reader: