Wednesday, May 17, 2006

FROM PLOT TO PRINT: THE MAKING OF A NOVEL

Here is a question left over from my recent Q&A at Brandilyn Collins' blog, Forensics & Faith:

Q: Chris, I loved Forgiving Solomon Long. From concept to print ready, what does your novel writing process look like?


With the Kansas City stories, I start with the inkling, the idea that is sort of going to serve as the spine of the novel:

A hit man is haunted by a preacher’s dying words.


An eccentric billionaire is missing and his tyrant wife is more worried about running the company than in finding him.


I start to think about what some of the ramifications might be, and how some of the various characters will intersect with and interact with this story. Each character is going to have his or her own agenda, or his or her own personal stake in what is going on. At this point, it’s a lot of scribblings in a spiral notebook.

During this phase, I also start writing down conversations between the characters. I find that one way to help me explore them and learn about them is to put them in a room with another character and start an argument. Sometimes the end result will show up in the final draft, sometimes not. Either way, I have learned something about both characters.

And as I get to know the characters, their own subplots start to bubble to the surface. Then I write up character descriptions and a summary of the various plots as I expect them to turn out.

Somewhere in here, I start working up the marketing copy, for lack of a better phrase. For me as a novelist, this is the target in my head. But this copy will turn up later, too, when the publisher is working on the back cover copy.

I was in progress for the second and now the third book when the publisher asked for a different title. I have found that the new title we end up with also plays into the feel of how the novel is written. WHERE IS BLAKE? became DELIVER US FROM EVELYN, and that meant the target shifted a little. As a result, I wrote a different novel.

We have just changed the title of my third novel. The first title was dark and scary, even though the novel is going to be kooky. The new title carries more meanings—it is both dark and bright. I suspect that Detective Charlie Pasch will likely make a big deal about the new title.

I want the novel to be paced in a certain way, so I actually make a document where I number the chapters and start to drop in where I think the various events need to hit. I tend at this point to write in three acts, so I make sure all the major twists take place at the one-third and two-thirds marks. I also try to spread the subplots around in such a way that we rotate among the various characters evenly.

Then I do the actual writing. If I have any material that drops in later, I’ll put in the chapter earmarked for it. But otherwise, I start at the beginning and write a chapter at a time.

As I get in deeper, I find myself rethinking things. All of the structural stuff I did in advance is just a guideline—and I may shuffle around some of the planned plots, I may find characters moving in a different direction than I expected.

At the one third point—my first set of major plots twists—I stop and do a revision and evaluate what I have. With Deliver Us From Evelyn, I got to the one-third point and decided I had too much going on, and pulled one entire subplot altogether. Several times through the first draft, I may stop and revise and rework what I have.

Even after I get a draft, I will revise that once or twice before I show it to the publisher. In my years as a magazine editor, I have found a rule of thumb—which turns out to be true for me as a novelist, too—is that your first draft is about 20-percent fat. If you want your document to be a certain word count, your first draft needs to be 20-percent larger. Then, as you pull out the fat, you should end up with the right words count. Since my Harvest House contract calls for 80,000 words, I shoot for 100,000 words in my first draft.

Of course, a novel is so much larger than a magazine article, that you can’t be as precise. As a result, Forgiving Solomon Long ended up 75,000 words, and Deliver Us From Evelyn 85,000.

Working with my editor, we may add or subtract certain elements, fill in any gaps or add some scenes to change the tone of the novel.

Somewhere in here, I am presented with the back cover copy, which is loosely based on the summaries I have provided at the beginning. We’ll tweak those a bit. With each novel, I learn a bit more about what may or may not work. The cover copy of Forgiving Solomon Long does a poor job of describing the contents—and I am as responsible for that as anybody.

And even later, after I have had some time to live with it, I may ask for changes. When the Evelyn galley came in, I cut like three chapters and an additional 10 pages to tighten it up. I added a couple of scenes, too.

It’s like they say, there is no great writing—there is only great rewriting.
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Die Laughing: Funny Crime and Mystery Fiction

SHE'S THE SHERIFF!

A woman with a complicated past returns home to become the small town's new sheriff. Best Mann For The Job is by the writer/artist team of Chris and Erica Well. Read it from the beginning at StudioWell.com. Watch the trailer on YouTube.