Sunday, August 28, 2011

Starting On Page 1 (what a concept!)

Several years ago, I got to hear one of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker, speak at the Pasadena Public Library. Among other things, he described his writing process, which was:

• Get up.
• Write pages 1-5.
• The next day, get up and write pages 6-10.
• Next day, pages 11-15.
• So, in about 60 days, he'd write a 300 page novel.

This intrigued me, because Mr. Parker was a hugely successful (and by that I mean RICH!) mystery writer and also a prolific one. Obviously, that process worked for him.

At the time, I was struggling to write my first novel. I didn't know it, but there were 3 big problems holding me back. One was my inability to write new pages without first reviewing the pages I had already written. This inevitably led to rewriting. Often, I'd get sucked into a lengthy rewriting session and never get around to writing any new pages. I must have rewritten those first 25, 50, 100 pages a hundred times. I got SOOOOO sick of them.

Plus, the problem with constantly rewriting a mystery-in-progress is that one small change on page 37 can cause many other dominoes to fall. If you alter one clue or plot point in a mystery, before long, you don't have a mystery - you have a mess.

Argh. I definitely had a big mess. A mess-tery.

So, the disciplined approach Mr. Parker described (to an avid audience of hundreds, by the way) was inspiring, but seemed impossible to me at the time. I didn't have the skills as a novice writer to sit down and write the first five pages on Day 1, next five pages on Day 2, etc. I was all over the place. Driving myself crazy with all the rewrites. Writing lots of stuff that got tossed. Writing scenes out of chronological order. Messy!

It took years, but I did finally finish that first novel. (HEAVENLY MOVES) (And I love it!)

Now I'm working on my 4th novel. I think my mechanics and my process have improved as I've learned over the years. I'm still not able to write 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc., but I'm a lot closer to that than I used to be. With this 4th book (THE BOOK OF KELL), it kind of feels like sitting around a campfire, spontaneously spinning a tale... Not going back and re-reading/re-writing previous pages feels weird, but kind of good. It's keeping me from reading and writing those pages over and over again, which eventually leads to those pages being nothing but gibberish to me. You know? Like if you say a word or phrase over and over, it starts to lose all meaning. Lamp. Lamp. Lamplamplamplamplamp.


I am working from an outline and I try hard to stick to that, since that works best for me. I will occasionally jump out of chronological order and write a scene from some other part of the book if (a) I'm ablaze with inspiration, or (b) the opposite - if I'm stuck, glum, in The Swamp, just can't get started, I'll sit down and write ANYTHING. Anything to get me started. Even in the murky depths of The Swamp, I'll trick myself by saying, "Oh, just sit down and write for 5 minutes. Just 5 minutes and then you can do whatever you want." Usually, an hour later, I'm still writing and happy with what I've produced. (apparently I am both gullible AND persuasive!)

My writing process has changed with every book I've written. I think it will continue to evolve until I figure out what works best for me. I may never get to that Parker level of 1-5, 6-10, etc., but hearing him speak and describe his process that long ago night was certainly a milestone event for me as a novice novelist. Writing is a solitary practice. It's good, once in awhile, to get out there and hear what other writers have to say. Sometimes all you learn is what NOT to do, but that's important, too.

Looking back, that trap of rewriting ad nauseum was one of the worst habits I had as a beginning writer. On a daily basis, a little bit of rereading and rewriting is both good and necessary - anything more than that is A TRAP, Dear Reader. Don't fall in!

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