“He was up and down like a restless puppy, alternately snapping out directives and singing lyrics. She didn’t know how anyone could get any work done that way. But she also knew he not only could, he had to.”
— CREATION IN DEATH by JD Robb
If we were all the same, we’d all be very boring. We don’t all like the same movies, television shows, books, or people. We don’t agree about politics, religion, or who should win the World Series. If we did, life would be dull and we’d walk around like robots.
Writers don’t write the same way. Some of us don’t like outlines or plots or any sort of real organization. Some of us need to plan down to which characters will be in every scene. Most of us are somewhere in between.
Some writers love the words themselves, how words become phrases and phrases complete thoughts. The cadence of the words that make up the story is as important as the story itself. For others, the words mean nothing without the story behind them.
Some writers take a year-or more-to craft their novel. Others, a few weeks. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King says, “I believe the first draft of a book-even a long one-should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” He goes on to say he writes every day, and likes to write ten pages (about 2,000 words) which is 180,000 words at the end of three months.
The point is, some brilliant writers write one book a year . . . or every five years. Some writers write one book a season. It doesn’t make the former too slow or the latter too fast. It means that is how the stories come out.
I write fast. Once I get going and the characters take over and I stop trying to play God, I write as fast as I can to get the story out there.
It’s not pretty.
My first draft can be a bit of a mess. I edit as I go, so it’s pretty clean, but I don’t labor over the details. My transitions are rough, my setting is minimal, and half the time I forget to describe my characters. (I know what they look like, I rarely think to put it on paper until my editor mentions it.) If I need to research something that isn’t plot critical, I’ll put in XXX and keep writing. I can’t be slowed down to look up the name of a military base in Texas when it’s a minor backstory detail because I know that the minute I google the information, I’ll be online for an hour. That’s what revisions are for-at least for me. My first draft may come fast, but revisions take me just as long.
I don’t plot. No outlines, no plans, and I rarely know how everything is going to come together. It’s not unusual for me to be on page 450 of my projected 500 page manuscript, panicked, because I don’t know how my hero is going to stay alive. Yet, I’m constantly thinking about the book 24/7. Even in my sleep. Especially in my sleep. When I have a plot problem, if I’m thinking about it when I go to bed, nine times out of ten I have the solution when I wake up. If I don’t, it means that I went in the wrong direction, so I backtrack and try to figure out where I screwed up in the story.
I didn’t realize I was talking to myself, though. Thank God for hands-free cell phones-now I hope people assume I’m talking to someone over Bluetooth, not that I’m talking to my characters (or arguing with them.)
My son was five when he first said, “Mommy, why are you talking to yourself?”
Of course I denied it. I wasn’t talking to myself. Don’t be silly. So I turned up the music and started whispering. He still caught me.
“Mommy, I can see your lips moving in the rearview mirror.”
Damn smart kid.
I may not plot, but I do think a book to death. My characters walk on the stage fully formed, or I have to drag them out kicking and screaming. I picture a dozen opening scenes, discarding some, keeping others. I go back and forth until it hits me the best starting place. Sometimes it’s easier than others-with PLAYING DEAD I knew the first chapter was Claire’s father, a fugitive, confronting her and asking for her help. Sometimes it’s harder-with TEMPTING EVIL I wrote a half-dozen opening chapters before I settled on the beginning . . . and THEN that ended up being Chapter Three after revisions . . . after the teaser was printed in the back of KILLING FEAR . . .
As I’ve said before on Alex’s brilliant blog posts, I always get stuck at the beginning of Act Two . . . I cross the threshold and then WHAM! Can’t seem to find the Road of Trials . . .
For example, in SUDDEN DEATH (my April 09 book), I wrote crap for two months. 150 pages over and over because I couldn’t get past this one point. I was really worried because I actually had a lot of time to write this book, but now I was down to the wire . . . then I went off the Thrillerfest. I wrote on the plane, but it still wasn’t working. I tried to write during the conference, but was having too much fun (when I’m loving the story and it’s working, I can write anywhere, anytime-I wrote 60 pages at RT a couple years ago and they became the opening of SEE NO EVIL.) Then I got on the plane to go home and WHAM! It hit me. I knew what the problem was. I had a preconceived notion of backstory between Jack and Megan. I thought they’d known each other in the past. But every time I put them on the same page, it wasn’t working.
So I deleted everything but the first two chapters and wrote straight through for three weeks and finished the book before I left of RWA at the end of July.
Sure, there were some rough spots. And really, it wasn’t three weeks, because I was thinking about this dang story for three months before I even started writing. I also have a very kind, forgiving editor who just circles my XXX that I didn’t have time to research. And most important, I always expect a round of revisions. I want revisions. Why? Because no matter how good the story is-and the first two-thirds of SUDDEN DEATH was very tight when I sent it in-a good editor can help make a book better.
For example, in SUDDEN DEATH I have a killer who is truly mentally ill. He’s not right in the head. Therefore, I didn’t get into his head-I picked, instead, his partner who was sane. Much easier. My editor pointed out an obvious flaw-because the sane killer had her own covert plan, it wasn’t realistic that when I was in her head she wouldn’t be thinking about it.
But I was scared to go into the head of someone who was insane. I’d never done that before. I’m talking about someone who really sees things, who really is not all there. His memory is not reliable . . . but my editor pushed me to do it because she said (rightfully) that it would really take the story to the next level. So I did it. It wasn’t easy, but it worked (I hope.) It was a challenge, and I pushed myself. And no matter what happens with the book, I’m proud of how that character evolved from a two-dimensional stereotype to a real person.
I’m not afraid to revise. In fact, I thrive on it. I’m also not afraid to delete. I tell people I deleted nearly 150 pages and they look at me like I’m crazy, or they start to hyperventilate because they can’t imagine deleting so much work. It’s not fun, but I don’t sweat over it. I’ve deleted twice as much . . . before I sold, I was thinking about my next project after I wrote a science-fiction romantic suspense (that didn’t sell.) I read some of the beginnings I had stashed away and came across a story I had called THE COPYCAT KILLER. The opening chapter was good, and the second chapter wasn’t bad, then the book completely deteriorated . . . 300 pages of total crap. Yep, you read that right . . . it’s not a typo. Three Hundred Pages. I deleted them all. Started with the foundation of those two chapters and wrote a completely different story.
That book became THE PREY, my debut novel.
Every writer has a different process. We have to work at our own pace. If I was given a year to write a book, I’d think about it a lot, but I wouldn’t actually start writing it until about eight weeks before it was due. I know me. I’m the person who waits until April 12th to start inputting my receipts into Quickbooks, then stays up until 2 a.m. three nights in a row because I have far more receipts that I thought . . .
My supernatural thriller series that launches in 2010 . . . I had the idea in August of 2003. In fact, I wrote the first couple chapters then, and have been thinking about the story for more than five years. I wasn’t ready to write it then; now I’m itching to get to it because it’s all clicked in my head. Would you say the book took five years to write . . . or three months?
I may be able to write and revise a book in eight weeks, but I couldn’t write six books a year. Why? Because I need that thinking time. I need to talk to myself, I need to sleep on plot problems. I need to get into the heads of my characters and see what makes them tick. I need to write and delete, write and revise, then think some more. That takes time. Writing time? Not so much. Thinking time? Absolutely. And if with the thinking comes some solo verbal communication, so be it.
And if my kids think that I’m a bit strange because I talk to myself, that’s not my problem. I’m writing.