I am absolutely thrilled that I’ve finished the first draft of my current novel. I’d be even happier to announce that I’d finished the editing and it was ready for the world to buy, but it’s going to be a little longer until that day arrives. In the meantime I’ll enjoy the feeling of finishing the first draft.
I occasionally speak at libraries, book clubs and the like and one of the questions most often asked is about my writing process.
Many writers talk about being a planner versus being a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants, or in other words the opposite of planning). I prefer to think of it as a continuum rather than being one or the other as we’re all individuals.
I realised a long time ago that I’m a details person and when I first started writing seriously I thought this would equate to being a full-on planner. Over the years I’ve discovered that I’m not so much of a planner as I initially thought.
If you Google the subject of writing and planning or outlining, you’ll find thousands of links, many of which extol the benefits of planning. I don’t disagree with them at all. If I know what is required of a scene; the outcomes needed for the plot and character growth, I write much faster. At heart I am far more of a planner, BUT sometimes things don’t always happen the way you’d like them to and you’ve got to go with what works for you.
I’ve written six novels and while they’re in a variety of genres, the planning elements remain very similar. A character (sometimes two or more) and a situation present themselves. They sit in the back of my mind for a while as the characters become more rounded and familiar, and the initial situation grows into a larger and more complex challenge. By the time I start planning i.e. writing an outline or plan, I generally know the first quarter to a third of the story and (mostly) my destination.
For my contemporary fiction and chicklit novels that’s fine. I wrote Lives Interrupted and Writing the Stars in this way and didn’t need to make huge structural changes during editing. However, for the crime, murder/mystery novels it doesn’t work as well. You need things like red herrings and clues strewn strategically around the place which takes an element of planning.
When I sat down to start planning this latest novel, I was at the stage mentioned above. It’s a sequel to Still Death and so I knew the main character Lexie Wyatt well. I had the conflict and I knew who the murderer was (always a help!), but I still only had about the first third of the plot. This time I was determined to nail a complete outline and write the novel without the need for much change.
So what happened? The details part of me is what happened. I’d start high level planning of chapters or scenes and find myself diving into the details and writing snatches of dialogue or narrative elements. I actually spent about six to eight weeks trying really hard to plan. Then house renovations and tradesmen around every day put paid to any work. That took a couple of months and by the time that was finished, so was I — with planning.
I had the first third of the novel planned out and so I started writing. There’s a quote I like by E. L. Doctorow.
“It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
To me, this sums up my process of writing. I’m not saying it’s the best, but it appears to be how my brain works. As I approach the end of what I know about my plot, the next few steps appear and so it goes. It’s definitely not perfect. As I got further into this novel, I could see where I would need to make structural changes, but I do have a finished first draft rather than an unfinished plan. That’s what I call progress.