I’ve begun to immerse myself in my second novel about my heroine detective, and so am thinking again about the daily workflow. Generally, the main part of the process that interests writers is the question of whether to have some kind of daily writing quota, most often a word-count based quota. But I think I’m realizing that what I really need is a somewhat more complex routine.
Here’s where I am at: I have the plot and plot outline. I have a working list of characters and scenes, though emphasis so far is on “list” because that’s just about all I have for most of these: tentative names and places. Vague glimmers of ideas about them. I also have a list of the “ingredients” that should be common to any book about this particular heroine, including things about her and her style of working, her mental profile/attitudes/psychology, and the kinds of situations and issues she tends to get pulled into. (This list is bigger — including things like the different dilemmas she keeps wrestling with, meanings of things like sex or work or identity for her, etc., but this is the gist. Some writers call this the “formula” for a particular character, series, or kind of novel. Formulas really do help keep things consistent from book to book; if a reader wants to follow a particular heroine or hero, say Jane Whiteside in Thomas Perry’s novels, it’s because there are predictable things about the character and her challenges from book to book that one enjoys reading about again and again. If the writer loses track of these ingredients, he or she loses that readership.)
Though I’ve started in on the writing, I’ve actually got a bit of fleshing out to do on many of these list items before I can move around easily in this imaginary world. While I’ve often written by just plunging in with a vague notion of plot, I think it’s proving more helpful to take the time to first construct the characters in a scene, to give them pretty fleshed-out independent lives. Because when you really know the whole iceberg, it’s easier to write credibly about the tip that shows up above water in an individual scene.
For instance, in scene one, I describe a new character, a pedophile who gets nabbed by the detective. For him, I did actually flesh out the profile first, using the template below. As a result, when I wrote the scene I felt like I knew a lot about how he’d react, and it made the scene, including his arrest, more vivid:
His wife Betsy later tells me they arrested him the next morning, after the kids were at school. He screamed and collapsed and it took four officers to pry his hands off the door jamb and drag his thrashing screaming praying to Mary Mother of God body into the back of the squad.
Because I had fleshed out details of his life, for instance, I realized that this guy would indeed collapse when arrested, and start frantically praying. As with other things in that chapter, it was much easier to give him a pretty complex set of attributes (how courtly and gentle he was to the detective, how he sheds a tear talking about how he wants his daughter to become a doctor, even though he’s also molesting her, etc.)
My current working template for fleshing out characters includes a bunch of questions that take time to answer (see below). My second scene in the book is one in which the heroine has to meet and interact with six new people, all important characters, along with learning about a new physical space (a large Victorian house which contains a school she’s attending) and an institutional “space” in transition (the tradition of the small school, and the fact that it is being purchased and transformed by a corporation.) Meaning, ideally, I have a lot of homework to do — six characters to flesh out, extensive notes on the space, etc.
Some of this can be invented as I write, but even when I do that, it helps inspire me and keeps things consistent if I have at least some background fleshed out. If you KNOW your character is secretly hostile toward men, for instance, you’re more likely to come up with the real-life, subtle little signs of that in the dinner party scene, instead of writing something that is too over-the-top that you’ll then spend a week trying to work around during your later revisions.
So I’m finding that my work day is kind of like riding a railway for a distance of 1000 words, but in order to do that, I first have to build the tracks. Since I want to do my thousand words in the morning, it means that I have to do two things later in the day: build the “track” for the next day (filling in the general information/profiles/listing clever ideas for the scenes I’ll write), and then doing some editing of today’s thousand words. Because I find if I write a section then go off to the gym, I always come up with a bunch of improvements or new ideas. (Often simple things: realizing I should have given some info about where people were sitting, what they were doing with their bodies in that first meeting; realizing that two characters might already be signaling that they are going to like, or hate, each other, etc.)
Last but not least is research. My character is learning about psychology, and also training in ninjitsu, a new sport for her. I have to do some scouring of the history of psychology and learn, maybe first-hand, some things about being a black-clad assassin. Sounds like a full day, particularly if I want to be a “working novelist” who actually gets one or two of these things written every year.
But a full work day isn’t bad, especially a structured one like this. Nothing is harder for a writer than not being sure what he or she is supposed to do next.
My Character notes template
Name and nicknames:
Important goals in story/life:
Important background (synopsis):
Interests and likes:
Copes with stress:
How sees self versus how others see:
Vignette that reveals character: