One thing I discovered when I began writing novels thirty years ago — I can’t write from an outline. After a few failed attempts, I learned my natural process was to start with some basic ideas for people, locations and storylines, add an inciting event, and then develop the characters and plot in the course of writing. This makes starting each novel a leap in the dark.
Last month I plunged into the fourth book of my Paula Savard mystery series. In addition to not outlining, I have a bad habit of doing something different with each book. The first one was an amateur sleuth mystery; book #2 was a classic whodunnit. Book #3 added multiple narrators and two timelines. All three introduced a dead body in Chapter One. Book # 4 doesn’t.
I didn’t realize why this new story had to start this way until I was a couple of chapters along. At the end of book #3, Winter’s Rage, Paula is so rattled by the story events that she vows to never get involved with another homicide case. Paula needs to be tricked into it for there to be a book # 4. From the start I could see a problem. How would I sustain reader interest without a corpse?
My initial plan was to repeat the style of Winter’s Rage, with a narrator other than Paula relating a past storyline. This backstory would have a murder early on. I circled the idea (procrastinated) by writing this backstory as a short story, but it didn’t work as fodder for my novel. I couldn’t see its relevance to the main plot I had in mind or that a past murder would make up for the main plot’s meander out of the gate.
Well, I’d stalled long enough. Time for the leap into the novel. I wrote Chapter One, by hand sitting out on my patio enjoying Calgary’s warm fall weather, and continued with Chapter Two. Then an idea hit. I’d insert two secondary viewpoint narrators, two detectives, who know something is going on that Paula doesn’t. Through them, readers would see murder lurking and get into the suspense of Paula becoming involved despite herself.
The approach worked for me and held my interest through the subsequent chapters. Now I’m 1/4 way through the manuscript and planning to add a fourth narrator, Isabelle, an erratic character established in previous books. One of my detective narrators is also a regular in the series. It helps that I already know these two characters well, but I feel a pressure about finally giving them voices and worry this will mess with how readers and I had pictured them before. Isabelle and both detectives will work at cross purposes with Paula to complicate the plot.
The story feels like it’s beginning to gel. I’ve outlined the next four chapters and expect they’ll lead to a corpse around the novel’s midpoint. I’m almost sure who the victim will be. The killer is probably one of three suspects and there might be a second murder later in the book.
This discovery stage used to be my favourite part of writing novels. With my first books, I let the stories go wherever they wanted and fixed them up later. This required a lot of fixing. But from experience, I’ve developed a sense of pacing. In this current novel first draft, I’ve rewritten and cut scenes that didn’t work or slowed the story down before moving forward in the plot. This makes writing first drafts harder and they take longer. Now I find the next stage, revision, more enjoyable than the excitement of leaping to an unknown place. Maybe I’m just getting older.
Over the years I’ve read writing advice books and heard many writers talk about their writing process. I’d estimate the split is about 50/50 between novelists who outline and us “pantsers,” who fly by the seats of our pants. There’s a third group, a minority sometimes called “quilters,” who write scenes they later assemble in order. I don’t understand them, as my process is linear. Although I find myself thinking of part-scenes for the chapters coming up, so perhaps I’m learning to quilt a little.
I have to take a short break from the manuscript now. Drat! Now that I’ve got the beginning in place I’m less scared and I’m excited to see where the story and characters are going.