My first book, The Trouble With Fate, hit book stands/ebook outlets fourteen months ago. I didn’t know anything about writing when I wrote it. But someone asked me recently - Leigh, you’ve written two books since your debut novel, has your writing process changed? Have you learned anything?
Why yes, I’ve learned at least five things. And I’m going to borrow a road-trip metaphor and a few images from Supernatural to tell you about them.
Thing no.1: There’s no ‘hell’ on this writing route map
As I mentioned, my first novel was written by the seat of my pants. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go and a hazy idea of how to get there. Safe to say, there were a lot of backups and detours before I got to the end of the book. Starting the next novel, The Thing About Wolves, was a trifle more daunting - I knew I had to get to the final destination in a timely and expedient manner because I’d gained a publishing contract and a delivery date in the interim. Determined to cut down on the lost mileage, I sketched out a hasty map for Wolves. It was a fine and pretty thing, save for the fact that it wasn’t drawn to scale and I’d over-estimated how many side-trips could be humanly fitted into one trip. You don’t want to know how much of that book ended up being rewritten. For my new release, The Problem with Promises, I tried a new approach which I liked so much, I’ve since adopted as my new writing mantra. Now, I outline heavily before I ever get behind the wheel. Then I plug in the GPS, and try to keep on track. It saves petrol, it saves time, and I hardly ever hear, 'recalculating route.'
Thing no.2: Go ahead, kill someone
Another thing that caused me hellish problems at the beginning of my writing career was the great swampy middle. I’d motor my way to the halfway mark and then lose momentum. It was dreadful. I’d spend days at the monitor, and I’d get nowhere. The issue? I didn’t understand story structure (and if this is the case for you, I suggest you research 'three act structure'). Eventually, I came to understand that a novel’s middle is more than a bridge between the awesome opening and the stupendous climax - it’s the pivot point in your main character’s emotional journey. Whatever he or she’s facing must be made incrementally worse by a piece of action that takes place halfway through your novel. I get this now. When in doubt, kill someone.
Thing no.3: What about bumps in the road?
Okay, you know how I just told you to listen to your GPS and never stray from its instructions? Disregard all that. Sometimes the navigation system hasn’t been updated to take into account that dodgy piece of roadwork. And, sometimes despite all effort, writers still get stuck in a scene. It looked great on the outline, but it just won’t parse on the page. A friend told me that if she’s stuck, it’s usually because she’s made a wrong turn in an earlier scene. She’s learned to back up, and take a hard look at where she might have gone wrong. And then, she adjusts her course accordingly. Since this writer pal has written over thirty books, twenty or more of which have sat high on the bestseller lists, I listened. And now, when the mud’s churning up behind my wheels, I stop and look behind me. And then, instead of trying to force the story to fit the outline, I tweak things. Not hugely. Just enough to put the story back on track.
Every series begins with a what-if? What if two brothers are trained to be hunters and set forth on a perpetual road trip to rid the world of evil supernatural creatures? Et voila - I give you the hit television show, Supernatural. Similarly, every episode has its own question. What if the Winchester boys find a rabbit’s foot? How would that play out? The answer to that is Bad Day at Black Rock (season 3, ep. 3). There’s a lot of funny moments in that episode - 'I lost my shoe' - I’m Batman' - 'You suck.' But in the end, the question was answered and a lot of people grew justifiably nervous around rabbit-foot key chains.
That’s television. What about fiction? Same deal. Every novel has a what-if. It took me a three years to realize that my job as a writer is to answer the ‘what-if’. And the best way of doing that, is to tell the story. So acutely simple, and yet so difficult. Writers . . . just tell the story.
Thing no.5: Was it good for you?
Here’s a fact I knew, and then forgot, and then relearned. It’s not the destination; it’s the ride. Slow down and enjoy it.
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