Friday, October 7, 2011

Tricks and Techniques

I recently wrote a short blog about how I compose my crime novels--I start writing and just keep going until I come to the end. I write without an outline and without any sense of where I am going. I know who the victim is, and even though I begin writing with an idea of who the murderer is, that can change at any time during the first three hundred pages. Of course, I have to do a lot of revising when I finally get to the end of the first draft, but all writing is revising anyway.

The real challenge for me, once I get started, is to keep going and not get lost--not wander off into turning a chapter into a short story, and then following that up with an article on the setting of the short story. If I do that, then by the time I came back to the novel, I would've forgotten what it's about. Another danger for me is getting tired. If I decide I'm tired and take a vacation for three weeks, I may never get the feeling of the story back. And then there's work and all the crises that seem to manifest whenever something else is happening in my life. To prevent all these digressions and distractions, I've developed a number of tricks to keep me focused and moving forward.

First, I take notes. This is usually a section in a binder for various projects I'm thinking about or working on, and there I keep a list of characters and a list of clues and points to include, adding to the list as I go along. I make a note every day of what discoveries or important incidents I've written in. This is a short one or two line summary of the day's scenes, to help me keep in mind what I've covered as I move through the story. The list of clues also includes sentence fragments, brief character descriptions or details--anything that could find a place in the story. I don't feel I have to use everything, but it's convenient to have one place to store ideas.

Second, I keep track every day of the number of words I've written. I don't have to write thousands of words (wouldn't that be nice?) but I do have to write something. If I'm working on a novel, I keep a running total of words written day by day. At first I set myself a total of approximately 1500 words a day, and this seems to be a norm for many writers. But by keeping track this way I have discovered to my surprise that there's usually a period in the book when that I write twice that amount. I don't think I would have noticed it so consistently if not for the ongoing record. During certain parts of the book I seem to pick up speed and I have to make an effort to slow down, to avoid getting sloppy and getting carried away with just the numbers achieved. But when I feel like I'm getting nowhere, like the story is stuck in place, a glance at the list of dates and the number of words written gives me a boost and I don't worry about whether or not I'm getting anywhere.

If I'm not working on a novel, or I am not working on it on this particular day, I note what I did work on. Did I write a blog post (like this one), or a query letter for an article or book review? Did I write a talk to be given later in the year, or plan questions for a mystery panel?

Third, I have to do something for my writing every day. The obvious task is writing, but if not that, then researching material for the novel, researching journals for a short story or an article, learning about marketing, setting up events. And there's lots to be done, more than I can list here, to maintain any kind of writing life. But this doesn't include reading because I'm doing that all the time anyway. That's the official reason. The real reason is that if I include reading in my list of work topics and tasks, I will write and I will read and I will never do anything else.

For a closer look at my writing process, go to


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Dear Susan,

Normally, I mentally live in my head with my characters and plot for a few months before committing anything to computer. I used to do detailed outlines handwritten and handwrite every novel before typing. However, with my latest novel, I'm experimenting and using a method very similar to yours. I have a feeling it will work just as well. I'll let you know!

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm impressed that you have been composing on paper for so long. When I started writing years ago, everyone composed on paper or the typewriter, but I gave it up in the 1980s when I got my first Mac.

Anonymous said...

I like that you keep a log of what you do every day. Good idea. I'm going to adopt it! Some days just seems to seep by, don't they?

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

We have similarities in style and method. I use a notebook to keep track of characters and scenes, but I am a "pantser", not a "plotter" - no outline, but I do know where I'm going - most of the time!

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Susan: I read your post with interest, because my WIP is an historical mystery, first time I've attempted that. Like you, I write 1500 a day, but for first draft I write every single day. Your suggestion about jotting down scenes you wrote that day was interesting and one I might try.
Thanks for the great post.

BDTharp said...

Every writer has their own process that works best for them. I'm still discovering mine. -BD