Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Welcome, Terri Main

How I Write a Novel
I would like to begin with a disclaimer. I do not claim that this is THE way to write a novel. Nor do I claim it is the BEST way. I’m not even sure it would work for anyone other than myself. However, it may amuse you to see my process. If some of it is helpful to aspiring writers, that’s a bonus.
I probably should narrow this down to “How I Write a Mystery Novel.” I haven’t written any other kind. Mysteries have their own challenges. A good mystery is a puzzle wrapped up in a story. If they puzzle is too easy to solve, the reader is bored. If it is too hard, they feel they haven’t been given a fair chance. At the end, when the culprit is revealed, the reader should be saying, “Of course, it all makes sense. Why didn’t I see that?”
Likewise a mystery must be a good story. It must have characters the reader can love or hate or be amused by. It must be an enjoyable unveiling of the main characters as they go about solving the mystery. A less than perfect puzzle can be excused by the reader if the story is fun. 
One of the perennial questions asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  Most authors don’t have very good answers because they have a different type of vision than others. A car cuts most people off on the freeway and they say, “What a jerk!” The author says, “I wonder where he is going so fast. Is he running from someone? Why is he running from them? Who might be chasing him?” Those questions become the genesis of an idea. 
For Dark Side of the Moon, (MuseItUp Publishing, February 2011) the idea came from a dream I had in high school. I dreamed of being a teacher on a lunar colony. We had a visit from an incredibly handsome golden eyed alien. He was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit because of prejudice. I defended him.
I wanted to do something with that dream. I decided I didn’t want to go the alien route. I wanted to stick to hard science fiction, but I also wanted it to be a country cozy. For a country cozy, you need a small town. Well, how do you build a small town on the moon? You build it underground with a dome simulating sky, etc.  So, I created a small town and placed my school teacher who becomes a college professor who used to be a profiler with the FBI in the middle of it.
For a cozy mystery you need a sleuth. The sleuth is either an amateur or someone for whom police work is not their full-time profession. Since you are aware that this character may well be subject of other novels and short stories, you spend a good deal of time with them. 
First, I get a clear visual image of the person. Carolyn is about five-foot-four, 55, slightly graying hair. She dresses conservatively. She is not fat, but she is continually struggling with her weight. 
Next, I make a long list of likes. Favorite colors, foods, books, music, hobbies, etc.
Then comes a list of beliefs: religious, political, philosophical
This is followed by personality traits: reserved, bold, volatile, controlled, etc.
Then, I write her backstory. What was her life like before the beginning of the story. 
I do this for each of the major characters. I do it for the sleuths, the victim(s), the suspects and the killer.  With the killer I pay particular attention to the reason for the crime. At the end of the novel, I want the reader to understand totally and even empathize with the criminal. The scariest villains are those in whose eyes you see yourself. 
I start at the end. I have to know who-dun-it. Sometimes I will even write the last chapter first. It gives me something to aim at. But at the very least I need to know who killed the person(s), how and why.
Once I have that settled, I can go back and ask other questions:
·        Who else might want this person dead?
·        What are their motives?
·        Who is the most obvious suspect? (They are not the killer, of course.)
·        What clues will need to be planted in the story? (This would include interviews with suspects and witnesses, physical evidence, financial matters, documents and in the case of Carolyn Master’s mysteries psychological profiling. 
·        What are the detours in the investigation?
·        What secondary crimes may be solved that do not impact the main crime?
I also begin to plan the secondary plot. This is the plot that involves the character herself. In Dark Side of the Moon Carolyn is dealing with reconnecting with people and rebuilding her life after the death of her mother. There is also a love story unfolding. She also needs to deal with some demons from her past. 
Now, I step away from paper and pen (since most of this I do in notebooks). I lay down on my bed. Close my eyes and watch the story unfold in my mind. It’s like I see it on a movie screen in my head. Some scenes are clearer than others. But I get an overview of the whole story. 
Then I get up and make a very brief outline. I just jot down the main “landmarks” in the journey my characters take. 
I tend to write fast and furiously. I don’t edit as I write. I give my characters their freedom to take me where they want to go. I let them decide many of the paths we take between the landmarks. I try to not let them do things contrary to their character. I try to let them speak and act through me. I know it sounds strange, but it’s sort of like method acting where you portray the character from within.
I don’t always write sequentially either. Sometimes I just feel like I need to write a certain scene, so I write it whether it is in order or not. This is a writing frenzy. I am just trying to write as fast as possible to get something, no matter how bad, down that I can edit later. 
I let the writing rest at least a month before trying to edit. The first thing I do is read through what I have written and try to put the pieces in order. If there are some missing pieces, I take the time to write them. Then I do major revisions. This may mean cutting out entire chapters and paragraphs. It also means me checking everything  for consistency. If one of the clues is a left shoe hidden in a closet and I don’t have a scene where they find that shoe, I need to write that scene.
This is followed by tightening the prose. I read the story out loud and correct the grammar and awkward passages. Then comes proof reading to get the manuscript as clean as possible.  Finally, I format the manuscript according to the publishers guidelines and send it in.
Then, well I get started working on something else.
That’s how I write a mystery novel.


Roseanne Dowell said...

Interesting post. I, too, love mysteries.Although I'm not a fan of scifi or fantasy. Yours sounds like a story I might enjoy. I especially love cozy mysteries.

Heather Haven said...

Terri, you are a fascinating and talented woman. I'm going to enjoy reading the fruit of your labors.

Pat Dale said...

This came at an interesting time. I'd recently finished a mystery novel and had been thinking back over it, looking for flaws. I like your operandus modi, Terri, and can use this to test various aspects of my book.
Also an excellent guide for aspiring writers to follow. Cheers, Pat Dale.

Arlene said...

Thanks for sharing your process with us, Terri. By the details of the read, I'd say how you outline and lay out your novels is a great success.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Teri, you have detailed exactly why one of my Iskander novels that had a murder and included an investigation diverged into another mainline. (No, I don't recommend doing that.)

Chapter One, my protagonist was traveling by ship when a security agent (one of her people) was murdered. She started conducting the investigation but soon handed the legwork over to another of her agents to go off and do something more important.

Fact was, she was getting bored as a sleuth -- and so was the author. So we went away to war while others looked for the murderer as a sub-plot. Caught him at the end, but had to hand him over to his bosses for political reasons.

I guess I'll have to write it your way if I want her to solve another mystery.

Chris H.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Terri,

I'm really impressed. For the one murder mystery/thriller I've written, I wrote the first chapter, where two people die, without a clue as to who was responsible or why! Then I spent the rest of the book trying to make everything fit together!


Frank Creed said...

I like all the work that goes into your main character's profile! Good details.

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