(First published on the Mystery Morgue site.)
The last time an interviewer asked me to describe my writing process, I replied honestly, “Utter chaos.”
Try as I might, I can’t control the way a story gels in my mind or how I get it onto the page. Ideas come at me from every angle — an incident I’ve read about, a person I’ve met or merely observed, my own curiosity about how people would behave in a certain situation. “Ripped from the headlines” has become a joke phrase among mystery writers, but the truth is that all fiction is an imaginative reordering of real life. And a writer who can’t see a million possible plots spinning out all around her simply isn’t paying attention.
Only once has a story — The Heat of the Moon, my first published novel — come from within my mind rather than the outside world. During a restless night after eating too much pecan pie with Thanksgiving dinner, I had a vivid dream about two little girls standing in pouring rain, crying for their mother. I usually forget my dreams quickly, but this one wouldn’t go away. It haunted me, and my imagination went to work on it, filling out the girls’ history and future. I wrote the book in a few weeks, record time for me.
After I’ve decided what my central plot is, I embark on a messy process of gathering the background information I’ll need, jotting notes on characters and possible scenes as they come to me, trying to pull together a preliminary outline. Since I’m only happy when I’m actually writing, I seldom make it all the way to the end of an outline before I say to heck with tedious preparation and dive into the first draft.
My first drafts are sketchy, far too short, usually lacking entire scenes that I know the story requires. This initial product isn’t fit for human consumption, and I would never allow anyone to read it. But it serves me well because it helps me get to know both the characters and the plot. The first draft might take a direction I never dreamed of when I was outlining. I end up with an untidy lump of words, but now I have something to work with.
The second draft is what I enjoy most, because I’m shaping the material into a coherent narrative, deepening the characters, widening the book’s scope. Around page 100 of the second draft, though, I observe a personal tradition: I panic. I become convinced that what I’ve written so far is garbage and what remains to be written isn’t worth the effort. Knowing this has happened before doesn’t stop it from happening again. I believe the 100-page crisis of confidence is my inner child’s way of whining, “This is HARD. This is too much like WORK. I don’t wanna do it anymore.” Doggedly writing my way past the panic point is my outer adult’s way of saying, “Shut up. I’m busy here.”
I have critique partners who read my second draft as I write it. Their comments are often invaluable, but I’ve never believed anyone can accurately judge plot and pace when reading piecemeal. Someone has to read the entire book at one time, and I have to read it straight through with a critical eye. This usually results in numerous adjustments, most small but some major.
Pacing has always been the most difficult aspect of writing for me, and I’ll probably never feel that I’ve mastered it. Getting the pacing right in a suspense novel is easier, I think, than in a mystery, because suspense is driven by emotion and danger. If you’ve dreamed up enough incidents and clashes between characters, the story will sail along under its own steam.
In a mystery, as I discovered when while writing Disturbing the Dead, pacing is more of a problem. Clues must be laid in place (but not too obviously), the sleuth must go around questioning people without boring the reader to death, forensics results have to be reported, red herrings have to be worked in, and you must do all this while never letting the tension go slack. My inner child is right when it comes to mysteries — they’re hard, they’re real work. If the writer can keep things moving at a brisk pace while attending to all the other necessary tasks, that’s an achievement to be proud of. When the advance reviews for Disturbing the Dead began to appear, I held my breath in apprehension as I scanned for any mention of pacing. My relief was enormous when I spotted “fast-paced” in the Kirkus review. Yes! I did it!
Then I had to do it again. And again… Every time I reach the 100-page mark in a work-in-progress, I can hear my inner child cranking up her world-class whine. I insert my ear plugs and soldier on.