by Sandra Parshall
Second in a series of occasional posts about writing Book 6.
I know it will happen every time, I know the point at which it will happen, yet I always feel blindsided when I hit that first wall in the first draft of a new book.
While I do as much preparation as I can before I begin a novel, I’m not a writer who can produce a detailed outline and stick to it meticulously all the way to the end. I decide what the story is. I collect the most important characters (knowing others will show up as I go along). I know the identity of the villain(s) and the motive for the murder(s). I know where I’m going without being sure of every step along the way.
When I have a first scene in mind, I start writing.
You may sneer at “the mystery formula” if you like, but I’m comfortable with beginning each book in a roughly similar way, counting on circumstances and characters to make it fresh every time. The dramatic inciting event – a murder or the discovery of a body – comes in the first chapter. This is what I look for when reading crime fiction too. I want to know quickly what the story is going to be about. By chapter two, we begin to understand who is affected by the crime. From chapter three through the middle of the book, the story opens up, it expands to include subplots and unexpected threads.
And that’s where I always hit a wall.
I question the premise itself: Can I really make a good story out of this material? Do I have enough material here for the kind of complex story I enjoy telling? I doubt my ability to pull it off. (That doubt will linger until the book is finished.)
Once those doubts set in, it’s awfully easy to let them expand into overwhelming angst. Does it matter whether I write this book? Who will care if I don’t finish it? I consider destroying my computer. And so on. When I find myself at the edge of a sheer drop into a black chasm, it’s time to pull back, refocus, and move on.
That's where I am right now.
I will do more outlining. The middle of a crime novel should be bursting with suddenly exposed secrets, rivalries, and unsuspected relationships. But before I can write all that, I need to give the characters more thought. The hidden story – what really happened – matters most, because it drives the actions of the characters. If I don’t thoroughly understand the hidden story, I’ll get to the end of the book and have trouble justifying what the characters have been doing for the last 300 pages.
Eventually, I’ll regain my confidence and plow back into the writing. I don’t worry about writing well at this stage. I’m not concerned with pace or continuity. I don’t include much description. I don’t go into a lot of detail about anything – except what the characters are saying. I let them talk as much as they want to, and if they’re new to me and I’m not sure who and what they are, they will reveal themselves and their lives in their own words. I can shape the dialog in the next draft.
Many writers say they love the first draft and hate rewriting, but I’m the opposite. The first draft is torture for me. But I have to produce that big, messy lump of story before I feel safe, before I can breathe a sigh of relief and think, Yes, I’m going to make a book out of this.
Rewriting – shaping the story, finding the right pace, filling out the characters – is what I love. Rewriting is the prize at the end of the first draft, the goal line I’m running toward. It looks a long way off right now, but I know I’ll get there if I keep coming to the computer every day and letting my characters talk.