I know, I know, we haven’t had enough women, but here we have the first of two in a row. No, no, hold the applause. You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. What a crowd.
Okay, enough about you. Rachel Brady works as an engineer at NASA when she’s not writing mystery and suspense fiction. Midwest Book Review called her debut novel, Final Approach, “a tense thriller perfect for mystery libraries” and Reader Views praised its “interesting and colorful characters.” The second in the Emily Locke mystery series, Dead Lift, is coming in December and Rachel has just jumped into writing the third. She likes connecting with other writers at her excellent blog, Write It Anyway, and talking with bookish types on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
In the interest of disclosure, I have an acute dislike — no, fear – of heights, and since much of Final Approach takes place while sky divers are in free fall, it scared the hell out of me. Terrific book.
Messily in the Middle: Getting Happy in My Writing Skin
I’m delighted and excited to visit the Blog Cabin! When Tim invited me over, he asked me to answer two questions: Where do I get my story ideas? How do I put them on the page?
Not long ago, I wrote a short piece that addresses the Where. The How is more difficult to explain so I’ll focus on that here.
Some writers are “pantsers,” who write by the seat of their pants, laying the story down as the ideas come. Others, the plotters and outliners, think the whole story out ahead of time. I’m a pantser with outlining tendencies, so I fall messily in the middle.
Final Approach came to me in key scenes. Certain parts of the story played in my mind like a movie and, since I saw them so vividly, I wrote them first. This meant I had a few important scenes from the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, but nothing to link them. My struggle was finding the “bridges” between these scenes. Instead of writing from A to Z, it was more like writing from D to H and then L to Q. This strategy nearly drove me mad. I promised myself that if I ever wrote another book, I would write it linearly, from A to Z, no messing around. I was finished with bridges. Burn the bridges.
The random-scenes technique had two perks.
1. There was no excuse for not writing. If I didn’t know what came next, I would skip ahead, way ahead, to something I knew would happen eventually. Sure, there would be extensive revisions later, but in the moment, words were going on the page.
2. Each chapter existed as a separate Word document on my machine. When I was finally finished with a rough draft, I pasted forty separate Word documents together in the right order and watched a manuscript build before my eyes. That was enormously exciting.
While querying Final Approach, I started working on a new book, the linear A to Z one. I was a third of the way through a first draft when Final Approach sold, and eventually my editor and I turned our approach to Book Two. She asked for a synopsis first, an overview of the whole book, including the ending, so she could flag any major issues before I wandered off into the weeds. This requirement paralyzed me for a long time. How could I send a summary of the book? I had no idea how the story would unfold. I knew how it would end, but not how to get there.
I e-mailed a good writing friend. “Fake it,” came his reply. “Make something up, and if it changes when you actually wrote it, say you came up with something even better.”
Ultimately, I did fake it. But even faking a path took two weeks. I made way more revisions than a three-page summary should require. I tried working on it narrative-style and I tried outlining it. In fact, at the time I was determined to reform as an Outliner. But deep down I knew that if I waited for the whole book to reveal itself to me, so that I could summarize it in outline form, I would wait a very long time. Have you heard the advice about driving in fog? Not to overdrive your headlights? In my writing, the headlights only stretch a few scenes ahead. That’s as far as I can outline. I can not see the end of the road, and I’m envious of writers who can.
I wrote the second book linearly and liked that approach well enough. It was easier to keep the chronology of the story straight, and I did less hand-waving to get characters where I needed them to be. Events unfolded organically with this method. But there were problems.
1. When I got stuck I stopped writing. Sometimes it took weeks or months for me to figure out the next scene.
2. The manuscript existed as a single file on my computer and I developed an annoying preoccupation with its total word count. Now I’m a compulsive word-count checker. I wish they made a patch for this.
A rough draft of this linear book, the next in the Emily Locke series, is with my editor now. We’ll be revising over the next few months and it’s scheduled for release in December 2010.
Now I’m thinking about Book Three. I started exploring this idea in November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time was my attempt to shake up my writing routine, and boy, did it ever.
This story is my foray into multiple viewpoints. It presents new challenges, both in the story and in its synopsis. I’m not sure how to capture parallel story lines in summary form and, as usual, I don’t know how the story will unfold. Once again, I’m sweating down here in Synopsis Hell. I also suspect that a linear, A to Z, approach won’t serve this story well. In some ways, writing this book is like creating two novellas with a plan to weave their chapters together later in a way that makes sense. I’ll experiment until I find something that works. I’ll admit it. I’m freaked.
But this time, I’m okay with that. For a long time, I would read writing books or listen to authors at writers’ conferences and then rush to the keyboard to implement their processes. I’ve decided that this is like trying to squeeze into someone else’s shoes. What fits another person might give me blisters. Better to break in my own shoes, I think. My process will probably always vary by project and will depend on what I’m prioritizing at the time.
When I was little, my grandfather brought home a necklace he’d found at a yard sale. Its gold-plated pendant said “I’m okay” on one side and “You’re okay” on the other. If I had to summarize my thoughts about pantsing versus outlining, I’d do it with those four words. I think that if the story is forming, whether on the page or in our minds, and that if we’re giving it the time it deserves, then we’re all A-OK. As with the messages on the pendant, there will be times when only one writing approach is visible and working for us, but that doesn’t mean that both can’t co-exist within the same writer and flip-flop, like my pendant did, throughout a project or a career.