Liars Club

The Process (part 2)

by Jonathan Maberry on August 24, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

An Extra! Extra! Feature

As I said last week in Part 1 of this feature, when writing is your job you can’t waste time and you can’t sit around wondering: ‘Now what?’   Process keeps us focused and process keeps us going.  I asked a number of my friends and colleagues in the writing biz to talk about their personal process for getting each new book done.

Last week we heard from Jonathan Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen, David Morrell, Sandra Brown, John Rollins, John Saul, and Gayle Lynds.  Today the following authors chime in: Jack Ketchum, Laurell K. Hamilton, John Connolly, F. Paul Wilson, Douglas Preston, Jeff Abbott, David Hewson, and Alafair Burke.

JACK KETCHUM:  My process is slow until I get the idea, fairly speedy afterwards.  On a long project, I rewrite the previous day’s work before I start the new day’s work, so instead of a rough draft I have a first draft when I’m finished.  I print it out, go over it with a pen and make corrections, enter the corrections, print it out again, show it to the woman I live with, listen to her when she says I’ve got a door where there used to be a window, fix it, print it out again and into the mail it goes.

LAURELL K. HAMILTON: Most books start out with a scene in my head that intrigues me and I build the book to make that scene possible. Often, I find that the inspiring scene never makes it into the book. My first novel NIGHTSEER was like that. Frustration will inspire me. Anita Blake came out of the double standards in the hard-boiled detective series where the men got to cuss, kill people, and have sex. The female detectives rarely cussed, rarely killed people and if they did they had to feel really bad about it, and sex was either absent or sanitized off stage.

Meredith Gentry grew out of a frustration with other people’s books about the fey. I wanted to do a grown-up series that showed the parts everyone else seemed to miss. I’ve had a story inspired by a music video, a bit of poetry, birds, animals, a walk in a lonely park. Ideas are everywhere for me. How I get them written is that I write. I write five to six, or even seven days a week when I’m doing a novel. I used to average about 50 hours a week, now I’m trying to be more reasonable with myself. Forty hours a week should be plenty.

JOHN CONNOLLY: Long, very long.  I write very slowly, but I write a little nearly every day, and then I go right back to the start and work my way through the manuscript, and I repeat that process over and over.  EVERY DEAD THING, my first book, went through about 40 drafts, but it was written over the space of five years.  Now, it’s probably 8-10 start-to-finish drafts.  For the first draft, I’ll set a target of 1000 words a day.  If I get a little more done, then great, but that’s what I aim for.  Once the first draft is done, I may look at one chapter every day, honing the language and expanding on characters and situations.  I find that a chapter a day is the most that I can do; after that, I’m inclined to skim.

Then, usually when I’m about halfway through a novel, I’ll start to have some idea – a very general one – about what the next book might be.  I push it to the back of my subconscious and try not to think about it directly, but I’ll know that it’s there.  All told, then, from idea to delivery usually takes at least 18 months, although in the case of something like THE GATES, which I’ve been mulling over for ages, it’s been seven years, I think.

F. PAUL WILSON: You know how it is – some stories come in a Eureka! moment while others result from a process of accretion.  In some I’m simply telling a story, in others I’ve got something else going on.  In The Keep I was determined from the outset to deal with different levels of evil, ranging from the human venal to the supernatural.  In The Haunted Air it was the war between reason and belief.

I want to know in advance if the story is worth telling, if it’s going to stand up to lengthy treatment, and most of all: Can I bring it to a satisfying conclusion?  That – the satisfying conclusion part – is, I believe, the best reason for an outline.  How many novels have done this to you: You’re sailing along, digging the prose and the plot and the characters when, about three-quarters of the way through, you start to notice it falling apart, finally to end not with a satisfying bang, not even with a whimper.  It doesn’t really end, it just seems . . . to . . . dribble . . . away . . .   If I’m not sure I can end a story, I don’t start it.  I feel I owe you a good ending.  Not necessarily a happy one, not necessarily a neat tying up of every loose end, but at the very least a catharsis, a release of all the narrative tension I’ve been building.  If I don’t do that, I’ve failed you.  I haven’t done my job, and you haven’t received your money’s worth.

I’ve never been a slave to my outlines.  I put them in a drawer and pull them out now and again when I find myself stuck.  More often than not I’ll deviate from them when an idea hits, but I always know where I’m going.  (Even in The Fifth Harmonic, the only novel I’ve written without an outline, I had a pretty good idea where I was going, but only a vague idea of how I’d get there.) As the Repairman Jack series winds to an end, I’m outlining less – mostly using a list of story beats that I organize for the best dramatic effect.

Once I start writing, I never look back.  I reread what’s gone before only to check and incident or description for consistency.  I do no rewriting until the first draft is finished.  The reason is simple: narrative momentum.  If I keep tweaking and retweaking before I’m finished, I’ll lose the drive.  Once I’m finished, I’ve got no qualms about doing a major overhaul here and there, because I’ve got a streamlined skeleton to flesh out where needed.

I start at Chapter One and go from there.  That works best for me.  I have key scenes visualized ahead of time but I like to see events unfold in sequence because I can monitor motivation and causality as I go along, and make sure each scene builds from the last and reaches for the next.  (And avoid run-on sentences like that one.)  That way I often find that what worked well in outline doesn’t hold up in fully fleshed text.  If I wrote scenes out of sequence and connected them later (as do some writers I know) I’d miss this, or find I can’t use a scene I’d spent a lot of time on.

I send my second draft out to a few beta readers I trust, consider their comments, and make changes according to the suggestions I think will make it a better book.  It’s important for beta readers to be on the same wavelength, and more important that they know they can’t anger me or hurt my feelings, no matter what they say.  Complete honesty is necessary if the process is going to work.

DOUGLAS PRESTON:  Well, I’ll tell you how one book got written and that will give you an idea.  In the current book, CEMETERY DANCE (co-authored b Lincoln Child), we had the idea to start with the religious practice known as Obeah. I had worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and knew an anthropologist who had done research in Haiti on Voodoo practice and Obeah (a very similar tradition). We thought it would be interesting to write a novel featuring those practices. That was the initial idea. But there is a long, long journey between idea and plot. Many inexperienced people and beginning writers don’t realize that the key is not so much in the idea, but how you turn it into a plot. I get people all the time saying, “I’ve got a great idea!” as if that’s the end point of the process. No. You’ve got to transform it into a great plot, and that can be exceedingly difficult. And then you have to write the book, and create believable characters. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. Give me a great plot, great characters, and good writing.

JEFF ABBOTT:  I want to be sure, at every stage of the process, that I have the reader by the throat; that is really my guiding principle during the creative process. So I tend to dump a lot of ideas into a notebook and try to see what’s most dramatically interesting, find the dramatic question of the book–how can I make the stakes as huge as possible and compelling to the reader and be true to the main character’s world.

Then I’ll send my editor a one-page description, with an emphasis on the scenes where the hero (or the villain) must face major emotional choices. (This seems to be the kind of outline my editor prefers). Then I start to research and write, and put a bit of structure around the idea.

Then I write and rewrite, and I’ll craft a more formal outline to make sure the book is as strong and delivering as great a punch as it can.

I try not to be too tied to the outline if a new idea comes but thrillers really do need a strong structure, so it’s a balancing act. Then when it’s done it’s sent off and I start on the next one.

DAVID HEWSON: I pick a place, a time, and a canvas. By canvas I mean some kind of thread – a piece of history, a story, a place – around which I can weave a story. Then I go to Rome, walk those streets until I can’t walk any more, sit down and write an opening. After that I wonder what my cast of regulars would do with the situation I’ve just created, and nudge them towards a conclusion (which they invariably refuse).

It’s as easy as that. Honest.

ALAFAIR BURKE:  I play with the idea until I have a shell of a story: who did it, why, and those few big, a-ha clues that will help drive the plot.  Then I start on page one and keep going until I’m finished.  I don’t outline.

New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry is a multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author and Marvel Comics writer. His many novels include PATIENT ZERO and THE DRAGON FACTORY (in development for TV), THE WOLFMAN, and ROT & RUIN.  He also has the dubious distinction of being a co-founder of the Liars Club.


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