Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Lights and Second Drafts

Christmas is upon us –– the season of good cheer, good food and drink, and time spent with close friends and family. For me, it’s also a time to regroup: I’m between semesters and chipping away on the second draft of a novel.

No two writers work the same way, and finding one’s process is like discovering how to tie a tie: You can hear about how to do it, even see it done, but until you actually finish a novel, you might as well stand before the mirror and try to do it backwards. Some writers outline. (Jeffery Deaver gave a keynote address I heard saying he spends eight months writing the outline, three writing the book.) Others say writing is like driving at night –– you can see only as far as your headlights, writing and plotting as you go. Other writers fall somewhere in between.

Part of developing a writing process is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. I do well to focus on character and dialogue, aspects that have always come easily. I’m never going to plot like Dan Brown. It’s simply not in my DNA. Moreover, I believe all writers, to some degree, write what we read. I grew up on series novels –– Parker, MacDonald, Chandler, Grafton, Paretsky, Burke (both Jan and James Lee) –– and I have no real interest in writing one-and-dones, stand-alones. Character interests me. I want to learn more about their lives in the vein Michael Connelly describes in his essay “The Mystery of Mystery Writing”: “The mystery has evolved in recent decades to be as much an investigation of the investigator as an inquiry of the crime at hand. Investigators now look inward for the solutions and means of restoring order. In the content of their own character, they find the clues” (Walden Book Report, September, 1998). I like to have a large canvas when I’m creating the arc of a character, a canvas that might span several books. I enjoy following a character, see her grow and develop and take on new challenges, and I enjoy books whose ill deeds expose moral ambiguity. All of this means the human condition is front and center in my plots: people do things, then, for relatively simple reasons.

So as I near the halfway point in draft No. 2, I’m taking inventory. The characters have come to life and are, fingers crossed, consistent and believable. Ditto the setting. The plot, though, has to be reeled in, simplified. I’m always looking for a way to find a twist at the end while honoring Poe’s and Chandler’s mandates that a mystery not only play fair with readers but also conclude with all necessary clues being front and center, unlike real-world crimes where aspects of the case always go unexplained. But much like the box marked “Christmas Lights” in my garage, this storyline needs someone to untangle it, and like that box in the garage, no amount of money will get my kids to do it for me. That means cutting and adding –– eliminating some red herrings, punching up other characters’ roles.

In the end, all I really want for Christmas is to not face draft No. 3.

Happy holidays!


Irene Bennett Brown said...

An 'illuminating' post that I intend to read again before getting back to work on a difficult first draft.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Good luck :)