The hardest part of staring a new novel is . . . starting a new novel. I’m just beginning work on the ninth Liss MacCrimmon mystery (as yet untitled). For quite some time to come, most of what I write will be garbage. A rough draft is, by definition, rough. Still, it’s important to get something down on paper. Once a rough draft exists, it can be rewritten and revised and polished until I’m happy with it. But my first, raw writing? Yuck!
When the weather outside is lousy, as it so often is at this time of year, it’s even harder to crank out those first words. My prose seems (seems? IS!!!) dull and lifeless. A lot of what I’m writing is a rehash of things I’ve already written in previous books in the series. Then again, some of that can’t be avoided. Not everyone reading this new mystery will have read the previous ones and there just aren’t all that many ways to do basic description to set the scene or reintroduce a character. Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, The Spruces, Patsy’s Coffee House, and Angie’s Books don’t change much from book to book. Although Liss, Dan, Sherri, Pete, and the others have grown and matured through their experiences, their physical appearance remains pretty much the same. Personally, I’d be happy to write the entire book without ever telling you the color of Liss’s hair or eyes or how tall she is, but the consensus of opinion appears to be that the author should provide some description of all the main characters early on, before readers form their own mental images. Readers, feel free to chime in with comments on this.
With a new book, there are also new characters to introduce. The first hurdle is naming them, no easy task when I already have a large continuing cast of characters from past books in the series. You’ve all heard the rule of thumb: avoid having too many characters whose names begin with the same letter . . . unless there’s a good reason, such as adding humor. I got myself into trouble on this issue before I even started writing. In the outline I sent to my editor, I chose the name Dandy for the Scottie dog who plays a major role in the plot. Dandy and Dondi are “Deidre’s Dancing Doggies.” Yes, I was going for “cute” but I somehow managed to forget until it was too late that Liss’s husband is named Dan. Could I change the dog’s name? I’m sure I will change some new characters’ names in the course of writing the story. But, sadly, I’m already used to thinking of this particular Scottish terrier as Dandy. I don’t think any other name is going to feel right for him.
I started out not knowing what these new people look like. Now there’s an oversight that will stop the writing dead in its tracks! I don’t need to (and shouldn’t) get too carried away with physical descriptions, but each one of these people (and animals) needs to have some distinguishing characteristic. Otherwise, I’ll end up with pages and pages of talking heads. Does each one need to have some strange little quirk? Not necessarily. But when new characters come on stage, they need to be identified in such a way that the reader will remember them when they reappear. It could be hair or eye color or height or build or the way they dress or the way they speak. Or it could be some odd personality trait. I took a day to do nothing but come up with distinctive descriptions for all my suspects. I make a character sheet for each so I remember what I’ve decided about them, and what I change as I write. As each one appears on the page, I’m putting in some of these traits. Probably too many, but I can cut extraneous details when I revise. Better too much than too little at this stage. After all, I have to make these new people stand out in my mind, too.
I don’t outline. When I started writing, I didn’t have a clue which of several suspects was guilty. He or she usually tells me when h/she’s ready. I was a little worried when I got to the end of the rough draft of chapter three and was ready to write the scene where Liss meets the remaining suspects in person for the first time and still didn’t know who dunnit. That night, as I was trying to fall asleep, I thought to myself “I’ve got to figure out who the murderer is.” And, by golly, an hour or so later, I woke up knowing who it was. Of course, that may change if I come up with a better villain, but it’s a big relief to me to finally have someone in mind, and to know why that person committed the crimes of dognapping and murder.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I started the rough draft (Chapter One Scene One on a blank computer screen) on a cold, dreary day in early January. A week later, I had the first chapter roughed out and a couple of pages of notes each for Chapters Two and Chapter Three. I’m aiming for fifteen chapters, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. More important is to end up with around 75,000 words, the minimum stipulated by my contract.
Chapter One, Scene One involves just Liss and Dandy. The earliest attempt contained no physical description of Liss, mostly because it’s written in her point of view. Besides, what she looks like isn’t particularly important. The lousy weather got a lot more attention, since it precipitates what happens. Sorry! Terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.
It came as no surprise when Chapter One (three scenes in all) ended up way too short and filled with uninspired prose. There had also been a few false starts that came right back out again. At the beginning of a book, I have to remind myself repeatedly that the writing, the plot . . . everything . . . will get better. Some days I force myself to push onward without doing more than minimal revising. After all, I know there will be lots more changes to Chapter One once I’ve written Chapter Two and beyond. Clues I hadn’t thought of will need to be planted. Maybe a name will change. There will definitely be substitutions of better word choices and removal of repetitious words. But all that comes much later in the process.
I expected this book to follow the pattern established when writing previous novels: that by the time I roughed out the last scene in Chapter Three, I’d have a pretty good idea what was going to happen in the next three or four chapters and might even have figured out who the villain is. As I’ve already mentioned, I do know who dunnit. Plot? Not so much, although I do know what happens in Chapter Four. Even if I didn’t, the important thing would be to keep on keeping on. Type something. See where it goes. Put two characters on the screen and let them talk to each other. My goal is to get as far as I can before I’ve made so many adjustments to the story that I absolutely have to go back and do some serious revising of the earlier scenes. By that point, I usually have a substantial chunk of text to work with, as well as a pretty good idea where the remainder of the book is headed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that’s the case this time.
For now, writing this at the end of January to post on February 5th, I’m still getting started and it’s hard. I have about fifty pages that no one is ever going to read but me. I know, intellectually, that perseverance will pay off, but with roughly another two hundred to two hundred fifty blank pages still looming ahead of me, it’s easy to become discouraged. I would love to be one of those writers who can envision the entire plot before ever setting fingers to keyboard, but my mind just doesn’t work that way. I just have to keep plodding along until I get through what for me is the hardest part.
Later this year, I’ll be posting about the next hard part: the sagging middle of the book. And I’ll probably have a few things to say in another blog about how hard it is to come up with a satisfying ending. Honestly, nothing about giving birth to a book is easy. But I have learned one thing from my previous efforts. Nine times out of ten, if I hit a place late in the novel where I’m not sure what should happen next, I can figure it out by going back and rereading the first three chapters. The seed of what I’m looking for will have been planted there during my floundering attempts to start the story in the first place. How does that happen? To quote from the film Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery.”