New tricks for an old dog
Writers are creative multi-taskers; we are often promoting one book while doing final edits on the second and brainstorming the first draft of yet a third. The wheels of the publishing world move very slowly and unless we are a couple of spins ahead, there will be long gaps between books.
Thus it is that I find myself writing the initial chapters of the tenth – tenth!! – Inspector Green mystery before the ninth has even hit the bookshelves. The Whisper of Legends is due out in April 2013, and I am thinking about launches, book tours, signings, appearances and all that fun stuff. But lest there be another two-year gap between books, I am also preparing the next book for submission to the acquisitions editor. With my new publisher, this process includes writing a dreaded synopsis. Every writer’s nightmare.
The challenge for me is that I have always written without an outline or any clear idea of where I’m going, what’s going to happen and how it will all be resolved (including whodunit). Difficult to write a synopsis when you don’t know the plot. When I absolutely could not get out of writing a synopsis, I did it after the book was written.
However, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to this new book. I wrote two Rapid Reads easy-read novels for another publisher. Quite a different writing process and style! These books are short, linear and chronological. For the submission process, three opening chapters and a detailed chapter outline were required. Chapter outline? Even worse than a synopsis, where at least you can fudge the middle and maybe even the ending.
I managed to do the outline for the two Rapid Reads books, because they were short and linear, and I also found that, contrary to my fear that the outline would stifle my creativity during the actual writing, I was able to move easily back and forth between the outline and the actual story, allowing each to influence and improve the other.
That was an interesting revelation. But surely it only worked on these simple books, with their uncomplicated story arcs and limited subplots and characters.
So I embarked on my first draft of the newest Inspector Green using my time-tested “fly by the seat of my pants” technique. I wrote the first four chapters in this fashion, enjoying the freedom but being troubled by the niggling question of ‘where was this going?’ Until this book, that question had never bothered me, but now I was fretting about the synopsis I still had to write about the rest of the book. What would I say? What were the plot twists and discoveries?
After finishing the chapters, I sat down to sketch out some plot ideas, and before I knew it I was writing a chapter outline all the way to the end! (Sort of). Aack! I was going to short-circuit the creative process and end up with a paint-by-numbers book!
The chapter outline is now sitting on my computer, waiting for me to play with it, throw it out, use it for the dreaded synopsis and then throw it out, or maybe even use it to help me write the book. But it is there, concrete proof of my first foray into the world of pre-planned writing. Whether it will improve my writing or not, it’s been an interesting experience. It’s the first time I’ve had a vision, however flawed, of the whole book including the end. I know the outline will be a comforting refuge when I confront those moments of terror every writer experiences. That moment when you wonder where on earth you’re going and why are you pretending to be a writer anyway.
So stay tuned for further updates on my first draft efforts of None So Blind, and the success of the outline approach. Does it improve or stultify? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched last year.