The Joys and Mysteries of Writing
August 20, 2015
Research – Hunting for facts and context
I love the constant learning, the thrill of the chase, the meticulous search for facts and context. (I’ll write more about that next week). But research also helps me with plotting. For example, in An Image Of Death, my third Ellie Foreman novel, I needed the backstory for the woman who is killed in the first chapter.
For some reason (I’m still not sure why), I decided she was from Armenia and had grown up under a Communist regime. I started to delve into research about Armenia and among other things, discovered a huge earthquake had occurred in 1988. It was so damaging that Soviet troops were sent in to help with the clean-up. But those troops were poorly equipped and many of them became ill. The rescuers needed to be rescued.
I placed Arin, the young woman, in a hospital where she volunteered to care for the soldiers. She meets a young officer in the Army, they fall in love, and they both move to a Soviet Army base in Soviet Georgia. That move, coincidentally, was three years before the collapse of the USSR, so I had MORE history to incorporate and drive the plot forward.
In another life, I was a journalist. In the early days of writing crime fiction, I often regretted giving it up. But I soon realized there was no need to miss out. The research side of writing fiction has filled the gap, and it’s a great way to for me to keep learning.
Plotting – Twists and Turns
Speaking of plot, I love the complexity of creating a story. Coming up with unique plot twists is even more satisfying. It’s not easy, but, as an editor once told me, if you have created three-dimensional characters, they will tell you what they want to do. I thought she was crazy at the time—I was their creator, and I certainly wasn’t channelling Shirley MacLaine.
But I concluded that editor was right. I just needed to step back and stop manipulating them into boxes they didn’t want to enter, for the sole reason that I thought they should. It was at that point that I stopped outlining and began to let the plot evolve organically. That doesn’t mean I don’t confront them with obstacles or Hobsian choices. Or pave the way for a surprise twist. I do, and I think those elements are critical to plot, and I enjoy putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The only hard part is writing them.
Diving into different subgenres
Subgenres. They’re a personal challenge for me, but in a good way. Stepping out of my comfort zone wakes me up, keeps me fresh and comes with all sorts of enjoyable knotty complications.
I often say I’m “writing my way around the genre,” and with my collection of suspense novels, PI novels, historical thrillers, amateur sleuth novels, and even a cozy, I suppose that’s true. The crime fiction canvas is broader than simply a “whodunit,” and I’m continually surprised, fascinated, and challenged by the permutations other authors have brought to the genre.
I’ve written dark, I’ve written light, I’ve written despair, I’ve written hope. In fact, the mental and emotional roads I travel while writing a crime novel provide me with a rich palette, which makes it an exciting journey.
Editing – The pleasure of perfection
Even though it’s the hardest part of writing for me, I believe in Annie LaMott’s Shitty First Drafts. You would not believe how awful my first drafts really are. Phrases, unfinished sentences, no punctuation, incomplete thoughts. I used to call it “Writing Ugly.” Happily though, editing is one of my favorite parts of the process.
After finishing a chapter, I’ll go back and revise, expand, and finesse it until it’s smooth enough to read to my Writers’ Group. They will invariably have comments and suggestions, which I listen to carefully. Once the entire novel is done, I send it to a developmental editor. Hopefully, the hardest work will have been done: plot, context, characters and motivations, the suspense and the settings.
But if one or more of those elements are missing or unclear, a good developmental editor will find them. In fact, I believe every author deserves a developmental editor. They really are trying to make it a better book. When the edits come back, I take great pleasure in clarifying, polishing, cutting, embellishing and re-ordering.
The truth is if I didn’t have a deadline, I would probably still be editing my first novel.
Book covers – Reality at last
Bright, shiny, new book covers like these are another favorite part of the process. It’s like getting a birthday present — it makes a book real. It’s no longer just a collection of manuscript pages, it’s whole and full of personality, attitude, and color. When the design mirrors the mood and content of the book, it’s a job well done, and it means my job is finished… until I start the next book.
So… I hate five things about writing thrillers and love five more. Somewhere along the road, though, I must have decided the good outweighs the bad, or I’d have given my writing career up years ago. I would have done something else, like become a lawyer (which I seriously thought about until I got my law board scores back), a film director, or a teacher.
What do you love most about your job?
Whether or not you’re an author, it’d be fun to know what you love most about your job. Why not leave a comment?