During the dog days of my eighth summer, I wrote two mystery novels. To me, they were “novels” because each occupied six pages of my Big Chief tablet and represented a herculean effort. I even remember their titles. One was “Mark Her Off the List, John,” and the other was “Incident at Hidden Cave.” The latter was distinguished, I recall, by a single word that stretched from margin to margin:
But never mind. The point is that it was my first and last attempt to become a novelist — until recently. For decades, I lived in a world of fact and wrote only nonfiction. If, like many journalists, I longed to write fiction (and I did), I also thought about how grueling the task. And how difficult to create a world rather than report on the one we have. And how formidable the challenge of writing 80,000 or more readable, coherent and consecutive words.
And I thought of how much I didn’t know . . .
And then! At the end of 2001, I opened a fat new spiral notebook, where I intended to record some column ideas, and the pages looked so pristine, so inviting, that I wrote instead:
The best way to get there from Dallas is to go straight down I-45. Takes three hours or so. The terrain’s more rolling and wooded than you might expect, especially around Corsicana. It levels off as you head south, going to heavy underbrush and open fields and farmlands.
When you get close, you can see the compound’s big guard tower from the I-road, a bit of wall, some chain-link fence. Not much foliage, they probably keep it down. You can also see that huge statue of Sam Houston towering nearly eighty feet above I-45 — twenty-five or thirty tons of steel mesh covered with white concrete, tall as a steeple.
Take the US 190 exit, and go east. Turn right on Avenue J and left on Twelfth. You’ll see it on your left. You wouldn’t think it would need an address, but it has one:
Texas State Penitentiary
815 12th St.
Those are still the opening lines of my mystery, “Chalk Line,” published in September by Marion Street Mysteries.
Why did it take me so long? I already told you: I was ignorant. Would I have done it at all if I’d known I would be 10 years older when I finished? That I would spend almost all my waking (and some of my sleeping) hours thinking about this one thing? That there would be mornings when I would dash upstairs to my computer and afternoons when I would still be in my nightdress at two o’clock?
The answer is yes. Writing “Chalk Line” was the most fun I’ve ever had. What I now know, though, is that it took me three times as long as it should have. If I’d only known…
Well, let me ask you: Are you nursing a secret yen to be a novelist? Do you want it to take 10 years, or two? Here’s a short list of Some Stuff I Wish I’d Known. If I’d had such a list, it would have saved me a lot of time. One of the best tips I could offer, though, would be to explore the many good books on writing fiction. I read many. Some spoke to me; some did not — but overall, their counsel was invaluable.
• Make a roadmap: Can you skip the planning and just sit down and start writing? Some novelists do. But it takes longer. You spend a lot of time rewriting and trying to figure out where the story is going. I don’t think most journalists — who deal in fact and logic — thrive on that kind of uncertainty. I think they need a map. They need a beginning, middle and end. They need a descriptive outline written in paragraph form.
Here’s how: Start with one sentence that boils the whole book to its barest essence, its major problem. (“The Wizard of Oz”: Young girl lost in a strange land tries to find her way back home.) Then add a handful of sentences, until you say to yourself: Yes, that’s what should happen in the first chapter. THEN what happens is … And you write another sentence that you expand upon until you have a brief description of the second chapter. You do this until you’ve described the main action in all the chapters. That’s your map. It may be 40 or 50 pages; it may have taken a week or a month to write — doesn’t matter. What matters is that you now have a destination and a map showing how to get there.
• Create bios for the characters: As you’re making your plan, also make a notebook of character bios and sketches. Include physical description, flaws, virtues, personality, wardrobe, home, car, family, relationships and formative backstories. Having this material at hand not only avoids mistakes (you don’t want a character who had hazel eyes in chapter 10 showing up with blue eyes in chapter 20), but it also helps you present a character consistently, quickly, every time he or she steps onstage.
• Get organized: Make a Scene notebook. A Fragments & Bits notebook. A Bio notebook. A Cuts notebook (in case you want to restore a cut). An In the Wings notebook, where you discuss with yourself whatever isn’t in the manuscript itself: theme, symbols, meanings, foreshadowings, connections, etc. Keep all the actual manuscript parts in one place — in a big looseleaf of printouts if you draft at the computer or, if you draft longhand, in a master spiral notebook (so it’ll lie flat), with pocketed dividers for loose notes. However you do it, keep everything together in a semi-organized batch. If you drop stuff into a shoebox or drawer or create a pile of loose notes, you will one day find yourself overwhelmed and your budding novelist career at an end.
• Write a rough rough draft: Allow yourself to write a perfectly dreadful first draft. As someone once said: Lower your standards! Since your first draft is probably going to be awful whether you work slow or fast, might as well work fast and get it over with. Fact is, some of the early work will be worse than you expected and some of it will be better. But either way, you’ll end up throwing out a bunch of stuff. You change your mind about a scene or development or character … and out it goes! (Consider: I changed my killer, my protagonist and my point of view!) It’s easier to toss something rough. If you habitually polish before moving on, you’ll waste untold time fussing with something you might end up tossing anyway. Also, the more you fuss over a passage, the greater the chance you’ll become wedded to it — even when it doesn’t deserve your loyalty. Stay loose in the early days. The goal here is to get to the last page.
• Write in scenes: You needn’t write consecutively. Write the scene you’re itching to write. You know from your roadmap where the scene goes. And it’s nice when you finish chapter 34 to find chapters 35, 36, and 37 already written. Don’t worry about transition or accounting for every moment. Just bring down the curtain on the chapter and bring it up on another setting and time. Mostly you’re concerned with relaying the action that moves the story forward: cause and consequence.
Don’t tell everything:A big problem for nonfiction writers is the dutiful rendering of description and detail. It’s part of a journalist’s training to answer questions the moment they arise or to lard the narrative with supporting material. Don’t. What is a hole for journalists is often good technique for storytellers. It’s amazing what you can skip and what the readers will gratefully fill in for you. Skipping stuff, or alluding to it without explaining it (at least right now) provokes curiosity and heightens suspense. Learn to trim or toss anything that bores you, that seems extraneous, or reads like blather. To do this, listen to your instincts. Read your draft with a merciless rather than loving eye — with what Hemingway called a “built-in, shockproof crap detector.”
• When you run out of steam, read: Reading restores those creative juices. You might find it’s best to stay away from your own genre, however — or from writers whose style is easy to mimic. In intense stages of creation, writers can be like sponges. You don’t want to unconsciously ape another’s style or voice or devices.
• Join a writers’ critique group, where you read your work aloud and the audience comments. But not until your draft is done. Until then, commune only with yourself. When you have a finished draft, you can use others’ criticism and feedback (or not, as you choose). But before then, it’s premature and can be overwhelming.
But most of all: Get ready to have the most fun you’ve ever had.
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” was published by Marion Street Press in September 2011. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: .paulalarocque.com