I write. I’ve had a few short stories published. One of these was chosen for the “Best American Mystery Stories 2015,” meaning it was deemed one of the 50 best mystery/crime stories published in 2014. Not bad; I’m very happy with that. But, when it comes to writing, do I really know what the hell I’m doing? Or at least think I know what I’m doing? Quick answer: no.
Certainly, I’ve learned a lot these past few years, since taking my writing seriously, and I know I’m a better writer, but does that mean I know what I’m doing? Does that mean I can sit down and craft a story that will elicit the emotion and demand the engagement of readers, in the way that Hemingway could? Hell, no. When I sit down to write, I don’t have a clue how to achieve the ends I’m seeking. I still feel like I’m rowing upstream without a paddle (and that, maybe, I’m like Wile E. Coyote and going up this stream even without a boat).
That said, I suppose it would be disingenuous to state that I’m wholly lacking in ability. It’s just that I’m winging it, laying down bricks without knowing if the cement I’m using is the right consistency. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. There are no rules—though there are plenty of people willing to share their writing rules with you—and that’s where the dynamism and excitement in a piece of prose can come from. It’s also what brings about this trepidation and uncertainty I feel. But, I’d guess many writers—even successful, working authors—would relate to this. So, let’s run with it.
I recently started draft one of a new novel, which is probably where all this unease comes from. At this point, I still don’t know how to write a novel and don’t even have a good approach for the writing of one. There are novelists who do a detailed outline, and though they allow for some leeway within the parameters of this framework, they adhere pretty strictly to it, so that they can be certain all the pieces of this puzzle fit. (I am a planner, and this use of an outline is something that appeals to me, but I’ve yet to make it work for something as long as a novel) There are other novelists who prefer to make it up as they go along. They may have a general sense of where they are heading, with a few guideposts set out in the wilderness they must reach, but all the interstitial stuff is unplanned. This approach affords these writers the opportunity to be surprised by their characters and to remain enthused about the work, which can be important when you give over months, or years, to a single endeavor. There is also the added expectation that, if the author is able to be surprised in the writing of the novel, then readers will also be surprised. (Though I’d prefer to have my map laid out before me, this is, generally, what I’ve found myself doing, when writing longer works)
So, damn wordy preamble aside, let’s get to the meat of this piece…
This new novel is a crime story about friends, with rough childhoods, who grew up together, and all that history, along with some of their poor choices in the present, come around to bite them in a major way. I know a handful of highlights within this narrative, and I have a fairly strong sense of the main characters, but as far as a chapter by chapter basis—or even a scene by scene basis—I don’t know what’s coming next. And working without a net scares me. Will I be able to write something worthwhile and engaging if I don’t even know what’s coming next and how I’m supposed to get to the “big scene?” Who knows?
I do feel like I’m getting better with this. My progress as a writer has been a series of incremental steps, little things I’ve come to understand, come to realize about the craft and about how I approach writing, that have proven, to me, that maybe I am cut out for this. It’s a long game, and I need to be in it for that long haul or I’ll never make anything of it. One of the major things I’ve become comfortable with is knowing my first draft will be crap. I just spit it out onto the page, knowing that I can fix all the bad stuff with revising. That, as Greg Rucka has said, is where the real writing, the real work, happens. This is good; it’s freed me up to just let the first draft roll across my keyboard and be what it is, the framework I was seeking from an outline, that can be tweaked and refined and improved.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, concomitant my comfort with a horrific first draft has come my increasing comfort with the idea of having no net. Which does not mean I just dive into a new story without any type of a plan. For this new novel, I had a general idea of where the story was going and what I wanted to do with it. I also wrote a lot about the main characters, long backstories that, for me, have been invaluable, because the childhood experiences of these characters dictate the choices they’ve made as adults, and the paths they will end up going down through this narrative. Without these backstories in place, I wouldn’t have been able to start writing this book.
Even with that, though, there is still a discovery process with the characters—not just finding their voices, but also, still, finding out who they are. Not until I actually started writing the first chapters did I realize there was still more to learn about these people. It sounds odd, almost foolish, but I’ve heard this from many writers, and the characters do take on a life of their own, once the writing commences. It’s kind of magical, but it can also stop the writing dead, because you end up with characters you don’t know or scenarios you don’t believe you can write yourself out of. One of the things I did, when I found myself stuck only a few thousand words into the novel, was to write a short story with two of the main characters, set in the past. This seems to have unlocked everything, and has allowed me to forge ahead with the book.
Finally (sorry, jumping around here, but it’s how my mind works, and this post—though ostensibly for public consumption—is really about me working through ideas and practices and approaches to writing, for my own self), one of the best bits of advice I’ve found, in recent years, comes from Joe Hill. He wrote on his blog, I believe, that he only writes one scene a day. That scene could take up only six lines or it could take six pages (or ten, or more). No matter what the length, he focuses on completing that one scene. I’ve taken that to heart, moving away from a word-count goal, and it has been helpful.
Even when I’m working on a short story (hundreds of which Harlan Ellison wrote overnight, or during the few hours he sat in a bookstore window), this is an approach I take. It extends the time needed for me to complete a short story, but I think it also makes the final product better. With only a scene to write each day, I can allow myself time for other aspects of my life—like work, spending time with my family, reading—but it also means I have all the rest of that time for my subconscious to work on the next scene (or even to rework older scenes). It affords me the opportunity to make connections that, I hope, will be enriching to those reading it.
The most recent example of this comes with this crime novel I’m writing:
First, there were decisions made prior to writing ---
- One character, KERRY, grew up rich, and, at the point we start the novel, she has recently launched a campaign for State Senator.
- Another character, DETECTIVE DESJARDINS, will have a story arc dealing with her crumbling marriage.
Next, we had the introduction of the Detective. In order to give it some movement, some drama, some verisimilitude, I had Detective Desjardins’s superior, Lt. Glass, call her in to his office to talk about her recent trouble clearing cases and the change in her demeanor (all brought on by her knowledge—unknown to anyone else—of her husband’s infidelity ßone of the first connections made in the writing).
Now, Detective Desjardins will become important later when she investigates the murder of a couple of the main characters—one of whom is the aforementioned Kerry—but I wanted to intertwine these characters even before that. So, I had the Detective following up on a robbery report from Kerry and her husband, from a few weeks prior. Detective Desjardins does not believe some of what is in that report, and, being upset by her marriage issues, decides to confront Kerry’s husband, who made the report, about these problems. This gets two of my main characters together earlier than they might have and also lays groundwork for the main plot of the novel (this robbery report came up as I was writing, but the link to the main plot came to me after finish writing for the day ßsecond connection made).
Finally, while finishing up the current chapter, I was thinking ahead to subsequent ones. I knew what the next chapter would include, but wanted to consider the one after that. And, while listening to a podcast or reading or something other than focusing on the novel, it came to me. With the silver spoon mentality of Kerry, and the quid pro quo that can exist between civic entities and state legislators, it only made sense she would go to the police Lieutenant and complain about Detective Desjardins harassing her husband ßthird connection made in the writing. It’s a natural, and it provides the antagonism (between the detective and the Lt.) that helps infuse a scene with its dramatic tension and engage the readership.
I don’t think I would have been able to make those narrative connections a few years back. I’m certain I would not have made those connections without having the time between scenes to ponder what comes next. And, if I’d had a set outline in place that did not include these series of events, I don’t know that I would have been able to find these connections and have them in the final narrative. It’s strange. I’ve always been a planner. But maybe I need to embrace writing without a net—which it appears, from setting this down, I am working toward—and accept that it’s the best way for me to write.