First and foremost – this post is not intended, in any way, shape or form, to be a “How To” on writing.
Mainly because I do not consider myself qualified to teach anybody how to write. Also because I believe that writers—like painters, musicians, tattooists, etc.—are all unique in their approach. Sure, there are basic concepts and principals all writers should be aware of—along with a decent grasp of grammar, usage, punctuation, etc.—but those things are tools. The way each writer uses his or her tools is a matter of preference.
I was asked by a reader about my process recently…we ended up having quite a lengthy conversation about it, so I thought maybe others might be curious too.
So this is how I do it…
Naturally, the first thing I need is an idea for a story. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, or have lots of detail…it just needs to be a place to start.
I call it the “What If” thought.
Let me use one of my recent novels as an example. The book is called Backseat to Justice.
One time, at band camp…oops sorry – habit…
One time, I was watching a documentary about identity theft. The story talked mostly about the victims, but before I knew it my mind was going in another direction. Naturally, these days, identity theft is more difficult than it was thirty years ago…and I thought…What If somebody stole somebody’s identity thirty years ago and it all of a sudden comes back to haunt them?
That was it. That was the initial thought that got me started. From there I just kept adding on to it with more “What Ifs”. Eventually I had enough to start writing.
Now here’s where my methods probably vary from most writers. At this point, many writers would start an outline to map out their whole story.
Not me – I just started writing.
I knew the core concept of the story and I knew I wanted it to be about a Private Investigator. The rest I pretty much make up as I go along.
The writing progressed nicely, the story took shape and any time I got stuck I just asked myself some more “What If” questions. During this time I focus mainly on putting words on paper. Naturally I try to use the best words and combinations of words possible in order to make the story the best that it can be…but when it comes to my first draft I am more concerned with getting the story written and not so much with the exact wording.
I also don’t agonize over spelling, punctuation and such. (although auto-spellcheck helps with this). Again, the primary concern here is writing the story.
Once the first draft is written, I give copies to my beta readers. I have a group of people who graciously volunteer to read the manuscript (MS) and give me feedback (this is where my most recent work Unfinished Business is right now).
They ask “What kind of feedback do you want?” and I tell them “Whatever you want to tell me.”
If they see spelling mistakes, circle them. If they see punctuation errors, tag them. If they don’t understand a sentence, highlight it and ask me what it means. If they find inconsistencies (you said in the first chapter that so-and-so was a vegetarian – but in chapter sixteen he eats prime rib?) point them out to me.
But the biggest one of all – If something about the story bothers you – tell me.
This could be anything…were the characters believable…did the story hold your attention…was there too much action…not enough action…do you like the way it ended…it’s ALL important, because I’d rather hear it from you than from somebody who bought the book. Or worse…not hear it from somebody who bought the book and lose them as a reader.
This process usually takes a couple of weeks before all of the readers give me their feedback…in the meantime, I don’t touch the MS. I literally ignore it…I don’t put it on the back burner – I take it off the stove and put it in the refrigerator. Sometimes I’ll even start working on the next book, if I have an idea (which I usually do).
So – once I get the beta readers’ comments back I go through them all, seeing what they have to say (the MS is still in the fridge). I toss their comments around a bit, consider them, and think about which ones will help the most.
Then I take the MS out of the refrigerator and put it back on the stove.
I start from page one and go through the entire story again—this time putting much more thought into the details I took lightly in the first draft. Since, at this point, I know the whole story; I can now focus on making sure everything flows well. I can add to, or take away from it as I see fit to better enhance the narrative. I can also throw in some foreshadowing and such.
I also keep the comments from the beta readers handy to consult during the process as well.
This process can be very time consuming, because it’s mostly detail oriented. At this point I’m painting with a much finer brush than during the MS phase, when I was using a big, fat one.
Once I’ve gone through and cleaned it all up it is now ready to be sent to the editor.
I know – sounds silly…sort of like cleaning the house before the maids comes over…but there it is.
I’ve been working with the same editor since Water Hazard (my second novel) and we work very well together. She goes through the book three times, sending me her comments chapter by chapter during each phase.
The first phase is for general punctuation, grammar, spelling, sentence structure and all the stuff I should have been paying more attention to in high school.
The second pass is for story structure. More analysis of the details; Does everything fit? Is the timeline correct? Did I use a wrong name somewhere (it’s happened)? Are there any gaping holes in the plot? You’d be surprised how many things we find during this phase.
The final pass is what I call – The Fine Tuning.
This is where she (the editor) will ask me things like; Are you sure you want to have this character do this? It seems to me that this character would /should act this way in this situation? Why did this character do that? Maybe you should give a little more background on this character.
During each of these three phases, I am going through the MS from start to finish incorporating her notes (as I see fit) and reapplying my own eyes to the story yet again. By the time I’m finished, I’ve probably read the book 6-8 times.
And we are almost done.
Now it will go to two more beta readers (ones that were not in the first group) for more feedback. When their comments come back I will sift through them and use what I think helps the most.
And that – as they say – is that.
Now (if I haven’t done it already) I commission a cover, write a synopsis and a back cover blurb and then it is off to the printer.
Let me tell you…there is no feeling in the world like getting the printed version and holding it in your hands…fanning the pages and stopping at a random point to read your work…and seeing a spelling mistake!!!
It seems impossible, but believe me…it happens.
As usual – thank you for reading.