Writing the first draft of a novel is a marathon. I should say right up front that I don’t like running. I am not a runner. I once ran a 10K race though the gentle hills of Morris County of New Jersey and thought I would die. I never did it again.
These days, I stick to the marathon of writing books. Which is ironically just as hard on my knees, thanks to all that sitting cross-legged with my laptop balanced on my outstretched knees. Thank God for yoga.
But I digress.
I’m now approaching the finish line of the third book in my Mercy Carr mystery series, tentatively titled THE HIDING PLACE. Another marathon. Not as fun as book one, but not as formidable as book two, either. I thought I would die writing BLIND SEARCH after the (relative) ease of A BORROWING OF BONES. It was New Jersey all over again.
Third time’s the charm. Or so they say. A marathon is a marathon is a marathon, but I will say that in writing this third book I was more aware of the actual process, if only because I was more familiar with it. Here’s how it went.
THE STARTING LINE
I always start with an image of a scene in my head. I knew this would be a cold case story, in which my heroine Mercy and her wonder dog Elvis solve the crime that haunted Sheriff Red O’Sullivan, her late grandfather. The picture of Mercy and Elvis at the deathbed of his deputy as he bequeathed the Sheriff’s case files of a missing person who’d disappeared twenty years before came to life on that little screen in my mind, and I was off.
When you run a marathon, they give you a T-shirt. I know this because my cousin Tony runs marathons, and he has the T-shirts to prove it. When you write a novel, you need a T-shirt, too, otherwise known as a logline. Something that communicates the gist of the thing and helps sell it at the same time.
My initial logline for THE HIDING PLACE: Jane Harper’s The Dry meets Taken in THE HIDING PLACE, the third Mercy Carr mystery, in which the former MP and her sniffer dog Elvis must solve a Pandora’s box of long-buried secrets to rescue her grandmother from the escaped prisoner who killed her grandfather.
Creating—and refining—the logline helped me remember what the story was really about as I continued to plot the novel.
THE COURSE STRATEGY
When you run a race, you check out the course first. You plan a running strategy according to the ups and downs and twists and turns of the road ahead—from Heartbreak Hill to the Mass Pike overpass to that final stretch uphill from the bottom of the Massachusetts Avenue underpass through Hereford Street to Boylston Street, if you’re running the fabled Boston Marathon.
The same is true of writing novels. With the first two books, I mapped out very thorough outlines of the story beats for each novel. (For more on story beat outlines, see my book Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene.) Which made writing book one fairly straightforward, but not book two.
Writing a mystery means creating two stories: 1) the one you tell the reader, which is the story of the sleuth solving the crime, and 2) the one you do not tell the reader, which is the story of the crime itself. The latter is the story that the sleuth must discover (and that the reader discovers alongside the sleuth).
The story you tell the reader is outlined in the story beat outline, the other is backstory. When I was writing the first two novels in the series, I focused more on the story beat outline, and tweaked the backstory as I went along. That worked fine in book one.
In book two, it was this backstory storyline that kept tripping me up. (In retrospect, this was probably because this was a more complex book in terms of plots and sub-plots, with a larger cast of characters and more complicated relationships.) It took me several painful drafts to get it all right.
So for book three I decided to write the backstory storyline first. I spent much more time on this backstory than I ever had before. Which worked, for a while. That is, through the first part of the race.
THE SOCIAL RUN AKA ACT ONE
The first ten miles of a marathon constitute The Social Run, where you acknowledge your environs and your fellow runners as you ease your way into the race. In a novel, this is known as writing Act One, where you get to know your characters and your setting as you ease your way into the premise of the story. This is the most playful part of the process. I love this part. (Don’t we all love this part?) I had strong premises for all three books, so writing Act One was fun.
THE TRANSITION AKA ACT TWO
Miles ten through twenty are the middle of the race—and the middle of the book. This is where you remember that you’re running a marathon and that you’ve got a long way to go. You’ve got to pace yourself, focus on the road ahead, and push your way on and through. For me, transitioning from Act One to Act Two usually means revisiting my story beat outline, and tweaking it to accommodate what I’ve learned about the structure and the characters while writing the beginning.
My sub-conscious really helps me at this point; this is typically when I start waking up in the middle of the night thinking about my characters and what they’re up to in the story. That happened with book three, too, but because I’d concentrated more on the backstory than the story beat outline, I had a lot more work to do on the main storyline this time around. I had to stop the writing for a couple of days to flesh out my skeleton plot. The good news: Because I knew my backstory so well, this proved relatively painless.
The infamous Mile 20 is known as The Wall for good reason. You’ve run twenty miles. You’re tired. You’re low on energy and fuel and motivation. You begin to wonder why you started this marathon anyway. When you’re writing a book, you hit the wall, too. You’ve written 200 pages or more and you’re exhausted. Depleted. Out of ideas. Running on empty.
At this point I often wonder why I ever thought this was a good story idea; in my delirium I think of all the bigger, better ideas for books I should have written instead. I consider abandoning this story for another. But I don’t. I’ve come this far, I may as well finish the darn thing. This is how I always feel, even though the prospect of wrapping the story all up with a bow with just one act to go seems impossible.
When I hit the wall, I console myself by skipping ahead and writing the very last scene in the book. I’ve done this with all three books in the series. This helps me keep the finish line in my mind as I write the final act of the story.
FULL FOCUS AKA ACT THREE
The last 6.2 miles of a marathon are the “full focus” miles. As running coach Benji Durden says, this is the “time to race.” You’ve made it this far, you’re going to finish, and you’re going to run your heart out. You’re going to race not just to finish, but to win.
The same is true for writing a novel. Once I can see that splendid finish line, I power through the last 20,000-plus words like a bat out of hell. I know I’m on the homestretch.
For book three, I adopted Hank Philippi Ryan’s habit of recording my output every day. I started tracking my word count on a calendar, and with every additional ten thousand words I rejoiced (and bought myself something really, really nice on sale). By the time I hit Act Three, I was up around at least 60,000 words, and I knew I had a book (and a new coat, two volumes of poetry, and a chandelier for the dining room).
THE FINISH LINE
The best part about being a runner is that once you cross the finish line, it’s over…until the next race. Not so for us novelists. Writing is rewriting. The first draft finish line is never the end. By the time you read this, I’ll be deep in revisions.
But that’s another story.
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