Getting From A to B

Every writer has a process. No two are ever exactly alike. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about other authors’ processes. It’s an instructive effort. Hemingway, for example, advised always ending a day’s work when you knew exactly what was coming next. That way, you could simply dive right in when you next took up the story. Steinbeck recommended never revising until the first draft was finished. Henry Miller said work on only one thing at a time. Sara Paretsky writes of juggling several storylines in her head. Each writer’s method or process has something to teach us, but they are like ingredients in a great pot of stew. You sort of stir it up, pull a big ladle out, and then pick and choose what bits work for you and which don’t.

As a mystery novelist, I have an odd approach to writing. I’ll get an idea for a novel. If it’s intriguing enough, I’ll sit down and write ten pages. Then I reconsider it. If I still find myself excited about it, I’ll go another ten. At 20 pages, one of three things has happened. Either I have, at the least, fallen in love with the characters or the storyline (perhaps both) or it has just simply fallen flat. The first two possibilities see me push forward to 40 pages.

That’s the final benchmark. After 40 pages, the characters need to have come alive for me, the setting and basic storyline need to continue to satisfy me, and the basic elements of the mystery plot itself need to be emerging. If all three requirements are met, then I’ll finish the novel. It’s kind of that simple. It took a couple of completed novels for me to realize how I worked.

I always start out knowing who killed who and why. Getting from the beginning to the end, however, is a journey filled with many surprises. And, along the way, the essential elements sometimes change. I once wrote a mystery with three very different endings, and then I tried it out on a couple of friends, who read drafts for me on occasion, and picked an ending based on their reactions and my own reflection.

For me that’s the fun of writing and reading. Beginning a story and seeing where it takes me. And while the various processes are instructive, the final product is really all that matters.

On a final note for 2014, Happy Holidays from the sands of Saudi Arabia!

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2 Responses

  1. 40 pages — odd to hear you say that. I’ve always found that if I get to page 40 the story is going to work. Of course, 40 has always been a code number: it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, 40 years in the wilderness, etc. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

  2. Don’t ask me where it comes from, Albert. I just kind of woke up one day and realized that 40 pages was a benchmark. But you’re absolutely right. 40 is one of those numbers, like three and seven, that seem to pop up everywhere.

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