The Mess

by Barb, in Key West where it is a gorgeous evening

I’m deep in my favorite part of the writing process with Maine Clambake Mystery, #8, Sealed Off.

I’ve mentioned before, many times, I don’t enjoy first drafts. They are like pulling teeth for me. But once that awfulness is “done,” I get to have fun.

Because I love to revise.

Revising is bringing order out of chaos, which is my driving force in life. It was essentially my job as a chief operating officer in software startups, where there was always plenty of chaos, and you never knew what you would find when you turned over any given rock, but it was sure to be a juicy, complicated problem.

Prior to the actual grinding through the pages part of revising, there is always plenty to figure out. Like, what, exactly, is the timeline of the critical events in the backstory? What is every little thing that happened on the day of the murder and what time did it happen? On what day of the week did each scene in the book take place, and what was the weather on that day? What is the final name of each character ever mentioned, plus the name of their store or their boat or their car or their house, whatever of those might be relevant?

Maybe some authors figure this stuff out before they start writing, but I never have enough information. During the drafting, characters’ names change, sometimes because I’m looking for just the right one and sometimes because I have honestly forgotten what I wrote days ago. (I never look back. I am afraid, like Lot’s wife, I will turn into a pillar of salt.)

I often describe the process of writing a novel as one of making smaller and smaller decisions. You start with the biggies. What kind of book is it? Who are the characters? What is the setting? (For subsequent books in a series, these decisions are often already made.) And the biggie, what is this book really about?

In the drafting you get to the medium stuff. What time of year is it? What is driving each character? What do they look like? And what, for goodness sake, happens?

By the end, you’re deciding much more mundane stuff. Here are the things I’m wondering about now (no spoilers).

–How long have Jason and Pru been divorced? Because, honestly, there are a few scenes where they seem really settled into a routine and comfortably co-parenting, but other times their relationship seems really raw. If it’s confusing me, it’s going to confuse readers, so I need to make up my mind.

–That storm that blew through before the story started, how many days was that? Was it the remnants of a hurricane? What was the track of the storm? What were the top wind speeds?

–What is the name of that convenience store? I thought it was a bit player, but now that it’s been mentioned 37 times in a dozen scenes, I can’t keep calling it “the convenience store–mini-mart–gas station out on the highway,” because if it’s annoying me, it will definitely annoy readers.

–What kind of boat is Jason’s, exactly? I’ve told readers it’s new and big and show-offy, but what does that mean, specifically?

There are dozens of these questions that I can’t tell you about because they are definitely spoilers. I love making decisions and finally nailing stuff down (both in writing and in life), which is another reason I love this part of the process.

My drive to create order out of chaos is often thwarted in life, by, well, life, which goes on its crazy way heedless of my desire to tame it. But in the fictional realm I am the queen, and my subjects must obey. Lots of writers say, “I can’t control my characters. They have minds of their own.” To which, I always say, “I have enough people in my life who don’t do what I think they should. My characters have to. That was the point of making them up in the first place.”

Sometimes I feel like if I was a better writer, I would know all about Jason and Pru before I got to this point. But that’s not really how it works. They are like acquaintances in real life. You observe their behavior and draw certain conclusions about them. But if you can’t figure it out, if you’ve become close enough, you just ask. “So, how long have you and Jason been divorced?” And Pru gives you an answer and from then on (and sometimes even retrospectively) you view their behavior through that lens.

I’m off to do more revising. I do it on paper, so I have to type changes into the manuscript at the end of the day, which can be incredibly tedious. When I’m grumbling about that, remind me–I love this part.

Writers: Does any of this sound familiar? Or maybe not at all?

Readers: I don’t know what to ask, because if we’ve done this part right, made all the tiny decisions and implemented them consistently and with finesse, you shouldn’t notice them at all.

30 Thoughts

  1. My writing process is a lot like yours, Barb, including the paper draft part, except I also revise on screen. A lot. And isn’t it wonderful to wrangle all those bits and questions into order?

    1. I need to get better at revising on screen. I waste a lot of time, but by that point in the process I’m always wary of tinkering with what works.

  2. I enjoy reading about the writing process and how it is different for each author. Whatever your process is, it works. I just finished Steamed Open, and it was sooo good! It’s my favorite of the series so far. Looking forward to Book 8!

  3. I think I do things the other way around. I love writing first drafts because I usually have no idea what’s going to happen, so I just let the characters go their own way. The first revision is much less fun, because of all those points you mention, plus some rather dumb ones like when a character orders coffee twice (and never drinks it). My most recent completed draft surprised me, because a lot of backstory details emerged that I didn’t even know about (and this was the 8th in the series!).

    1. I love when backstory details emerge. It’s like having coffee with an old friend and they say, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” And you’re like, “OMG, how could I not know this about you?” And they’re like, “It’s never come up.”

  4. Barb, the timeline part sounds very familiar.

    And the “bit player” part – whether it’s a store or a person. I think, “I only need this for two paragraphs” and it turns into 20 scenes. Or I’ll know the thing needs a name, I give it one, and my critique group will say, “It sounds too much like…” Usually that happens with people names. At that point I’m into the story, so I generally leave the name as-is and make a note to fix/change in final edits.

    1. At book eight I have so many regulars I have run out of letters to start names with. Plus in this one, I gave two people the same name, but I did it on purpose.

  5. I’m so glad you sorted out that thought about loving revision because it puts things into order. All along I thought I loved it because I was a high school English teacher for decades and loved making things correct. I am now in the order camp after reading your post. And don’t forget the mathematics. How many times I have reread my manuscript and said, “Geesh, she couldn’t have done that back then because she was only [plug in young age.] Unlike you, I’m a detail kind of person, so I try to get those right before I write. Excellent blog post. Very thoughtful.

  6. Boy does this sound familiar! About the only difference in my process is that when I change a name halfway through, I do go back and change it everywhere so I don’t forget to do it later. And I go back to chapter one a couple of times before I get to the end when I realize I need to insert a big chunk of text earlier in the story to make sense of where the plot is going now. One little change begets bigger ones, so it’s easier to read through and revise everything I have before going on. Sadly this doesn’t reduce the number of revisions the entire ms. will go through once I finally make it to the end of the draft. Good thing that, like you, I prefer revising to raw writing.

    1. Yes, little changes do beget big changes. I prefer to pretend I changed it and keep moving, but with a couple of books I haven’t been able to and I’ve had to go back. You’re right, it doesn’t save any revisions, but sometimes it’s the assurance you need to keep going.

  7. Oh, goodness yes, that sounds familiar. At some point after draft #1, I do a scene-by-scene outline under the heading of the day of the week and the date IN BOLD. One time I had like 23 scenes in one day and four in the next. So much for my ticking clock. For some reason in the current WIP, I had three people with names that started with “S”. So I wrote out the alphabet and listed all the characters so when I renamed them, they didn’t all start with “M” or whatever.

    1. I do the outline after the first draft, too. I used to do it more formally. Now I do it in Scrivener when I arrange the scenes but I still do it.

  8. As a non-writing reader, I am incredibly impressed with all the details that I never thought about that you have to keep in mind. However, as a copy editor, I am very aware of all the details when something doesn’t “match”. I catch all those little things that drive some people nuts and others never notice. Keep up the great work, Barb. Your writing is superb.

    1. AH yes, the details don’t that don’t “match.” I do my best with them, especially in the final read-throughs when I’m really many pages at one sitting and can most easily spot them. Kensington does their bit was well with copy-edits and page proofs. Thank you so much for the compliment on my writing!

  9. Great blog today. You make the “teeth pulling” very universal! And I agree, a lot of this is the fun part. Even when it is torture! Its like golf. We love it. We curse our way through a round. We try to self correct our swing on every hole and we hate counting all those extra strokes when we played badly. We play against our last score and try to remember when it felt like a simple game. Then we go back again in a few days to do it again!

  10. I run into the same “I need to name this” issues. I also aspire to layer in the wonderful details you do. Getting better at that with each book. I spend a lot of time plotting, so I’ve worked out details in the big picture first. Bit I still get surprised.

    1. It’s so fascinating to me how everyone does this novel-writing thing differently, but no way is “right” or “wrong” as long as the end product is good.

  11. Yes, you do it right. I’ve read other authors who don’t. As I was reading your list of things to be resolved, I was nodding because I’ve read books where I had those exact questions about the characters and their relationships.

  12. Thanks for the information on your writing process. It makes sense to go from the big picture down to the little stuff and to flesh out answers to things which would make your readers wonder if you can actually name that convenience store. I find the more I write, the more questions I have not answered.

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