“There are no rules about how to write a book and no one story about how one got finished.”
Oddly encouraged: that’s how I feel when I hear an author who’s open enough to talk about how difficult it can be to write and yet how rewarding some moments alone with the page can be. This is why it was so inspiring to spend a Write Group evening with Sheila York, the historical mystery novelist who created amateur sleuth and script doctor Lauren Atwill in a series set in the Hollywood film world of the 1940s. Star Struck Dead, A Good Knife’s Work, Death in Her Face: Sheila’s titles alone are a lesson in economy and élan. Here are some of the pointers she shared:
Accept your process: Some writers are “plotters” and painstakingly plan their books and others are “pantsers,” who figure out their plot as they go. On a scale of 1 to 10, Sheila rated herself an 8 as a pantser. This means that she has a rough idea of key plot elements when she starts a book, then teases her story out through extensive revision. And while she writes her first draft in “pantser” mode, once it’s done, she’ll assume the guise of a “plotter” and spend time mapping out her story and shifting pieces around until it works. So accept your preferred way of writing, but stay flexible: shift into whatever mode works best during different stages of your story’s development.
Get your first draft down: First drafts are just that: first drafts. Often, Sheila says, they can be “big hairy messes” — that’s their nature. Resist the temptation to edit or “choose” in your early draft and load it up with everything you want to put in, everything you want to describe. Then put it away and come back to it. When you do, you may find that you can cut a long passage and use just once sentence from it to set a mood or capture an image. Save the rest and use it somewhere else!
Make every scene sing for its supper: During revision, go back to every scene and decide what it and the characters in it contribute to the plot. How much of the scene is narrative or backstory? How is it moving the plot forward? As Sheila put it: “I would ask of every scene: What is your purpose? What are you doing for the book?”
Don’t romanticize writing: “It’s a job and you have to work at it as often as you can.
When something starts to work, there’s nothing on earth like it. But those are few moments in long days of writing…” How true this is — and yet, when those moments come, they seem to make it all worthwhile. Write on!