I don’t know why we never get tired of hearing about another author’s writing habits, whether we’re looking for that one trick that will make our lives so much easier, or if it’s the voyeuristic thrill of seeing how someone else washes their dishes or packs their suitcase (“You do what? Seriously?”)
At any rate, here is mine:
I am a plotter, not a pantser, so before I start writing at all I have to know how the book begins, how it ends, and the major incidents which will take place. These points begin as amorphous thoughts rattling around in my skull for a day or a few years or a lifetime. I write a series, thus my character tends to be the same—a female forensic scientist in Cleveland, Ohio—so the rest of the book might stem from a new character, a puzzle, an incident or, in one case, simply a snarky comment I wanted my character to make. Most often I start with a building, something visual and brooding and a little intimidating—a skyscraper under construction, a wind-swept observation deck, the opulent and historic Federal Reserve building.
Then a theme: what am I going to be talking about? What new world is my character going to explore? I’ll research, looking for ideas, and come up with things I want to have happen. Then I have to think of links that tie those things together, what carries my character from one to the next.
Eventually I’ll have enough for an outline. It won’t look like an outline, more like a freestyle poem.
Then this happens
Then this happens and my heroine really doesn’t like it
Then this happens
And penciled in between the second and third line will be scribbled addendums such as “oh wait, this happens too.”
Then I’m ready to start writing.
I have always been obsessed with word count, so I set a daily goal—whatever works for you, whether it’s 100 words or 3,000. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment each day without overtaxing yourself. I’ve done 1,000 words/day, 2,000 words/day 5 days/week, lately I’ve been doing 1000 words/day on the days I work and 2,000 words/day on the days I don’t. I used to write the total down every day so I knew how far I had to write the next day, but for the past few books I’ve made it easy on myself and kept it at a round number. If I write extra on one day, that’s a few less words I have to write on the next. I don’t rewrite until I’m completely done, except for minor fixes or things that I’m afraid I won’t remember if I don’t do them right away. Then I keep going until I have a full length completed first draft, minus vacations and major holidays…I’m not a total slave driver.
(I never take writing on vacation with me. I won’t want to do it, won’t do it, and then feel guilty all week because I’m not doing it. If I don’t take it along, conflict resolved.)
A schedule may not work for you, but unless your system totally rebels, I strongly suggest it. The most important factor is that writing becomes, like death, taxes and aerobics class, not optional. There are authors who write when inspiration strikes, who will then hole themselves up in their room and write for 16 hour days, but they seem to be the minority.
Since I started out writing at (she whispered) work, I’m not fussy about where or when I write. I prefer to write at home when my husband is at work and the house is quiet, but the disadvantage to writing at home is that there are so many opportunities for procrastination—laundry, bill paying, the newspaper, chocolate…. Sometimes it’s better to have laptop and will travel. I have written in restaurants, witness waiting rooms at the courthouse, next to a sleeping hospice patient while the caregiver gets a few hours off, and, of course (she whispered) at work.
When I finish the first draft, I take myself out to lunch and take a few days off before starting the second draft. According to industry wisdom I should put it in a drawer for six months and then rewrite, but who has that kind of time? When that is done I’ll send it to my sisters to read, and then do a third draft before sending it to my agent and biting my nails lest she say “This stinks. Throw it out and write something else.” Which has happened.
By this point I’m sick to death of the thing and never want to see it again, but have to deal with whatever changes my agent suggests, and then, when I’m really sick of it and provided she doesn’t say ‘throw it out’, I go through the same kind of round with my editor.
When I’m not writing a book, I don’t write—other than personal letters, which I send out constantly and obsessively (my friends and relatives know much more about the minutia of my life than they care to). I don’t write short stories or blog posts or novellas. I wish I did, but my brain just doesn’t work like that. At this moment I haven’t written a thing in nine months and it’s starting to freak me out.
That’s my system. It seems to work for me. If it sounds great to you feel free to adopt it. If it sounds bizarre than keep doing whatever you’re doing. There are as many different writing styles as there are writers.
And that’s a good thing.
Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.