“How do you write a book?” Robert, a third grader, sent me that question for a video chat I did with his special ed class. Robert’s class is finishing up the opinion pieces they’ve been writing, and are moving next to a unit on literary analysis. They were very excited about “meeting” a real author. I was very excited to see those kids who love their writing class and are doing things no one expected them to. Literary analysis? More power to their teacher (who happens to be my niece).
So how do I write a book? At first Robert’s question seemed about as hard to answer as actually writing a book. There are plenty of glib answers, including “Bottom in chair, fingers on keyboard,” “Write one word, then another, and then another, and eventually you have a book,” and “It’s easy, just open a vein and bleed.” (I didn’t mention that last during the video chat.) But as I thought about how to answer Robert’s question, I realized there are certain steps I take with each short story or book. They all start with an idea jotted down and end with my finger hitting the send button to wing the manuscript off to my agent and editor, and in between those two points are two separate and distinct paths. Both paths are full of twists, turns, obstacles, setbacks, reversals, and eventually a solution (at least I always hope there’s a solution).
The first path is the one my characters follow – poor things. They the ones who think they’re heading in the right direction, are sure they’re picking up on all the cues and clues, and are using their smarts to outsmart the villain of the piece. And then I drop a dead skunk in the middle of their road and sit back to see what happens. But mysteries need to play fair with characters and readers, so although that skunk might be stinking to high heaven, I make sure the characters have the tools and information they need to deal with it and eventually reach the solution. It’s all great fun.
The second path is the one I follow as the storyteller – the mechanics of the job – the “bottom in chair, fingers on keyboard” part of writing. Twists, turns, pitfalls, and reversals show up in my path, too. They include, but are not limited to, trying to find time to write around my day job, beating my brain for the right word during a senior moment, diving into an interesting bit of research and sinking out of sight for far too long, leaving the road for a side path that ends up going nowhere, and realizing the dead skunk is actually stinking in the middle of my road, not the characters’. Luckily I’ve collected tools and information to help me on my journey, too.
For each book I have a general outline (flexible), a file called “noodling” where I keep track of the main characters’ subplots and snatches of dialog, a time table of events so I don’t end up with anyone eating lunch twice in one day or owning a VW in one scene and a Buick in the next, and a calendar of my progress showing how many words I write each day and how many I need to write to meet the deadline. For the series I’m working on (the Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries, now five books long), I also have dossiers on each main character (interviews with them, descriptions, job status, etc.), a map of the town, family trees, and Excel files with all the characters listed by first name, last name, and nick name. Being organized at the beginning a “trip” doesn’t mean I won’t be skunked, and it doesn’t mean I can’t shift gears or vary my route, but it keeps me sane and on target. I also have a cat assistant, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Molly is giving away a copy of one of her Haunted Yarn Shop mysteries to a reader from the U.S. or Canada who leaves a comment on this post before midnight Mountain time Saturday, March 14th. The winner will be announced here on Sunday.
The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” She’s the author of the award-winning Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries, published by Penguin/NAL. Molly’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 1990. After twenty years in northeast Tennessee, Molly lives with her family in Champaign, Illinois.
You can find out more about Molly at her website. You can find her blogging on the first Monday of each month at Amy Alessio and on the 23rd of each month at Killer Characters, and you can find her on Facebook and Pinterest.