Rebecca Cantrell writes the critically-acclaimed Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930s Berlin, including A Trace of Smoke and A Night of Long Knives (due out June 22, 2010). Her screenplays, “A Taste For Blood” and “The Humanitarian” have been finalists at Shriekfest: The Los Angeles Horror/Sci-Fi Film Festival. Cantrell’s short stories have been included in the Missing and First Thrills anth0logies. Currently, she lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count.
Pantser or plotter?
Don’t tell my editor, but I write the first 50 pages blind. I have no idea who the characters are or what they will do. This is in spite of the fact that I had to turn in a synopsis of the book to sell it. I figure nobody read the synopsis and, if they did, they won’t remember the details a year later or bust me for it. So far, this has worked. Don’t spill the beans.
Because I write historical fiction, I do know when the action takes place and where the characters will be. In fact, I will have researched the era and place for hours and hours and hours and…you get the picture. I have a notebook full of trivia I gleaned from reference books, diaries, newspapers of the era, movies, and pictures I found on the Internet (not that kind of pictures). From that I extract some ideas of cool or truly awful historical events, characters, and facts I might want to put in a book. But that’s all.
I sit down with all that background and write 50 pages. I fuel it with soy chais and a soundtrack whose sole purpose is to shut out the noises of everyone in the coffee shop or house around me. I try not to think about what I’m writing or even re-read it at this point. It might never make the final cut, and I don’t want to get too attached to it.
I also have a writing journal that I start at about this time. Into it I put:
· All my whining: why did I pick 1930s Berlin? What kind of underpants did they even wear?
· My insecurity: What made me think I could be a writer? I have no idea where I’m going with this and it’s all going to collapse in a big stinking pile and I’ll have to give back the advance or even worse it’ll get published and I’ll be thrashed by reviewers and Amazon readers and some old lady will make her dog pee on my shoe, it’s so bad.
· Plot ideas: what if I have that zeppelin get jeppelin-jacked? Do you think that means I’ll be able to convince some zeppelin company to give me a free zeppelin ride? How explosive were those things? If you shot a gun inside, what would happen?
· To do lists: must fold the laundry so that we can find the living room again. Mail off those books. Buy vegetables, and not broccoli again.
After I finish those 50 pages I read them to see if they might actually be part of a novel. If not, I throw them out and write another 50 pages. If so, I start to outline. I outline the whole book, beginning to end. I use index cards that I stick to a board and they fall down and I lose them and also step on the pushpins if I get really lucky.
Then I write another 50 pages. At the end of those I discover that my outline is wrong. The outline is wrong both going forward (i.e., things I haven’t written yet) and going backward (i.e., things I have written that weren’t in the original outline). More outlining. I write another 50 pages and…you get the idea.
Looking at it put down here, it seems totally crazy, but it is my process. After having sat through many classes on “the writing process” I’ve discovered only one truth: Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it.
If you think outlining sucks all the fun out of writing, don’t make yourself do it. And remember, they don’t really read that synopsis, so don’t work yourself up into a frothing frenzy writing it either. If the thought of embarking on a year long journey of novel writing without any damn idea of what you’re doing gives you hives, by all means write an outline. Neither approach is wrong, despite what you may hear.
When I’m all done I match up the outline to the book I wrote so I can keep track of what actually happened. By this point it’s all in a calendar. Despite being in a calendar, my timeline invariably gets screwed up and a meticulous member of my writing group always gleefully catches it (thanks, Karen!). Writing groups are a big part of my process. Without my group of trusted readers, who knows if anyone could understand what comes out of my head.
After I get to the end of the book I start rewriting. I rewrite tons as I’m one of those weird writers who writes too little and always has to add new scenes (as opposed to the writers who write too much and have to delete scenes).
Once I have all the scenes I need in the correct order, then I go in and polish my language, my dialogue, my characterization, and my shoes (just checking to see if you finished the sentence). This is painstaking work and not for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely necessary as I don’t put down one golden word after another.
There it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. My process. And remember, don’t tell my editor.