Remember how the big question in the first episode of Season 3 of BBC's "Sherlock" was...how did he do it? How did Sherlock manage to survive what looked like a successful suicide in an attempt to save his friends? There were many theories put forth, ranging from the improbable to the absurd, that even at the end, you're still left wondering how it was done.
Writing by the seat of your pants sometimes feels like that. For me, it's jumping off the roof of St. Bart's every time, a leap of faith that yes, my writing process will work again this time. It's happened eight times before, but I think every writer, pantser or outliner, has the same fear: Will there be a book at the end of all this effort?
At various points, I find myself saying to my husband James things like “I don't know if there's a story here,” “this is never going to work,” and “I can't do this.” And every time he'd say “you say the same exact thing every time you write a book, and it just means you're in the right place on your writing timeline. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.” Which is not really reassuring as he'd like it to be.
So, in an attempt to try and replace hand-waving and “it's all magic” with data, I paid particular attention to what my process is during the first draft of my soon-to-be next Fangborn book.
1. Since finishing my last book Pack of Strays late last year—and I do mean, finishing, with all the editing and tweaking and copyedits and final looks completed—I started keeping a list of what would have to happen in the next book. Things that were left unresolved at the end (and the cliffhanger did get a strong response from some readers), character arcs (what will happen with Will-Adam-Zoe?), and story lines (what happens after the Battle of Boston?) all needed to be addressed. Actually, I've begun adding to an existing list created when I was finishing Strays.
2. While I was recovering and working on other projects, I also started collecting inspirations to answer these questions. I'd see a picture that moved me or an article that suggested something for the next book, and I'd file them away. A piece of music that made me want to write a fight scene or a meeting went into a new playlist (“Zoe #3”). And when I had my first very good (or at least, very vivid) idea, I'd open a new file (“Fangborn #3) and write down that thought or scene.
3. Writing. In addition to those othe r projects, I kept adding scenes and ideas to the file, slowly pulling the story together. I had a goal of six to eight pages everyday, so if I did two or three pages on “The Curious Case of Miss Amelia Vernet,” or a horror story (news coming soon!), or working on the Bouchercon anthology (are you going to Long Beach?), I'd make up the difference with “Fangborn #3.” I'm always about having a Plan B, Plan C, and sometimes a Plan D, too (not including editing on various projects and work travel, too!)—when my brain is done on one, I can usually get traction on the others. There are LOTS of little notes on scraps of paper everywhere on my desk—“don't forget to add XYZ” and “we need to see the new artifact do something.” The white board, Jarvis, is now covered with sub-plot timelines to work out.
4. The last two months to ten weeks before the deadline, I'm spending all my time and focus on the novel. This is important to clarify gaps in the story and create solutions for the problems I find. And it's the point where the book fills every waking—and sleeping—moment. I often wake up, blearily, with a solution or a scene in my head that addressed an issue I was working on the day before. The immersion is key for me as an “organic” writer, I think, because that's the opportunity to live in the story and pull it all together from the inside. This is the point where the “giant yellow Post-Its of added emotion and awesomeness” come into play. These emphases will be the last things to come down from their places on the bookshelves over Jarvis, because going back and adding emotional beats and beefing up defining scenes are like putting on the make up and jewelry after you've created bones, fleshed them out, and dressed them up.
5. Three or four weeks before deadline, I sit down with a print-out of everything I have so far, and put it into narrative chronological order. I add notes for connective scenes and work on them. I develop a loooong punch-list. While I try very hard to write only during work hours, this is the time when it goes late or I work on weekends. I still try to get out to clear my head, because as much as the immersion is integral to the process earlier, this is the point where perspective is key. Posture, personality, and good grooming are things of the past, now.
6. A rough draft, sometimes very rough, goes to beta readers. I sleep for a day and scramble on things left by the way side. Then start to work on edits.
7. Deadline day: I try to get it to my editor by end-of-business, his or her time, if at all possible. A shower is optional, after that, but a bottle of champagne is not.
Eventually, “Fangborn #3,” which I'm calling Hellbender for now, will go through a few more drafts depending on editorial comments. The page count will get bumped up, and I'll start to think, “hey, not bad” or “this is way cooler than I remember” or even "dammmn!" And that is when I'll realize: the process has worked again.
Writers (pantsers and outliners both)—how about you? Readers, do you have involved tasks that you use a similar strategy for?