Kate Flora: I am progressing, much more slowly than I’d hoped, toward the end of the next Joe Burgess mystery, Book eight, Such a Good Man. I’ve known since long before I started the book who the killer and victim are and why the victim was killed. Unlike many of my books, I didn’t know much beyond that. In a way, writing the book has been a lot like reading a book. I am discovering what the story is about as I go along, just as my readers will.
Recently, I was working on a section of the book and found myself feeling bored. I wasn’t sure whether it was my plotting, or the pace of the story, or my writing (all equally upsetting, I think.) I jokingly posted on Facebook that since I was finding my storytelling boring, it was probably time to bring in a man with a gun. My helpful FB friends suggested that instead of a man, I should bring in a beaver. Or perhaps a bear. Or was that a bear with a gun?
Those suggestions helped to lighten my mood and make me stop worrying about whether the book is sufficiently compelling to keep my readers reading. For the draft, at least, I’ve put in a bear, although a bear without a gun. Whether he gets to stay in the book depends on rewrite, of course. But in earlier books, Burgess has noted that while most people don’t see them, if you’re a cop driving around a city at night, especially a city with parks and rural surroundings, you’ll see all sorts of wildlife. So it is possible that the bear will stay.
Thinking about the bear, and whether a book can be boring, and how a writer constructs a story’s plot, reminds me that at this point, with 24+ published books, and another five or six in the drawer, I’ve written enough books to know that every book is going to be different. I may think I’ve got the process knocked and I know what I’m doing, and then a book will come along that refuses to conform to what I know. Books have their own rhythms and their own needs. Sometimes it will feel almost like automatic writing. The characters will be telling the story and I am just along to take notes. Once, they did that for nineteen chapters and then decamped. When I protested that they’d abandoned me, they said, “You’re the writer. Figure it out.”
Back when I had less experience, it used to scare the heck out of me when characters took over. I used to protest that I was in charge and I used to be terrified about how I could make the story work when I didn’t know why my characters were doing what they were doing. Now, when a character does something unexpected, or steers the story in a new direction, I’ve learned to go with it. Let them show me where they want to go.
Years ago, when I was just learning about how characters could misbehave, or stubbornly refuse to let themselves be written, I was listening to a panel of authors at the Exeter, New Hampshire library. A writer in the audience described a book she was writing in which her central character was being difficult and she disliked the character and didn’t know what to do about it. Two of the panelists gave her advice. The first said to tell the character to straighten out and cooperate or she was out of the book. The second said the writer should take the character for a ride in the car and talk over their difficulties.
To me, very new to the writing game, hearing experienced writers articulate both strategies was fascinating. It was also fascinating, at an early writers’ conference, to hear writers talking about the voices in their heads, and how they got increasingly insistent as the day wore on until the writer sat down and “let them out.” It’s cool to be part of a profession where hearing voices in our heads is actually okay and normal.
I’ve also learned, often from going back and rereading a draft of a book, how much of writing is taking place on an unconscious level. I’m struggling with making scenes vivid and making dialogue fit the characters and keeping the pace of the story brisk. When I reread, I will find, on another level, that I’ve been using colors, and time, and the weather to underscore my character’s mood and challenges. In Led Astray, it wasn’t until I’d read the draft that I realized the weather was dark and gloomy from the opening scene and didn’t lighten until Burgess has solved the crime and rescued a child at risk.
No doubt there are many, many more lessons ahead. I’ve come to see my writing process as a wheel. It goes around, and along the way I master parts of my craft, and then I start over at a different level and learn a whole new set of skills or refine the ones I’ve learned. Or, as I sometimes see it, it is an endless uphill trajectory. Not a daunting trajectory but an exciting one, one on which I am always learning, always getting challenged by what I need to learn, always, I hope, getting better at the job or at least some aspects of the job.
Lately I haven’t been very excited about the process—that boring writing problem I began with—but writing this down reminds me that it will always be this way. Probably there is an important lesson about from writing a boring scene that will inform many future scenes. Maybe the that brown bear, ambling down a city street, is more than just a bear. It’s a surprise and challenge for me as well as for my readers. It may jar me and my characters out of traditional thinking to consider something new.
Enough. Happy Holidays to all our MCW faithful. We appreciate your presence, your comments and your thoughts. If you haven’t read it yet, I’ve written you a new holiday story for 2022, The Rescue. I hope you enjoy it. The Rescue. kateclarkflora.com/