I'm finally DONE with the second book in my new international thriller series, RED SKY. I've done two revisions, looked at the first page pass, the second page pass, and just turned in the final page pass. The ARCs are in the hands of a couple of reviewers, the launch date is set (June 15 at the Tattered Cover-Colfax). Now is the time for setting up signings, figuring out blog tours AND...STARTING A NEW BOOK.
The fact is I've been working on a new book since I first sent RED SKY to my publisher. The past two months I've been in what I call the "Thinking and Planning Phase." This is when I test my latest idea. I play with the characters. I brainstorm different ways to tell the story. I make sure I have enough story to write a book.
Raise your hand if you've ever started a book to discover halfway in that you don't have enough story or that your plot idea won't work?
Okay, so maybe you're smarter than I am, or a better writer, but my hand is up. Hence, I decided to heed some advice and emulate a few masters.
Writing like Mary Higgins Clark.
Experience tells me that I can't contrive story. Readers notice! This means, I need enough twists and turns to fill up 400 pages. The only way I can figure it out is to test the waters. Mary Higgins Clark once told me she writes the first 100 pages of her novels, figures out what her story is, and then throws away the pages and starts again. Writing helps her figure out where the story is headed. So, taking her message to heart, I write until I find the story, then pitch the pages and begin again.
Researching like Francine Mathews.
I've learned that research is the key to a novel that rings true, and I love to research. Once I have an idea, I research the heck out of it. With RED SKY, I researched Ukraine. Once I'd learned all I could about country and its people, I realized I had to expand my research to include Russia, China and Poland. Eventually, I felt the need to visit Eastern Europe in order to better understand the people. While I was there, the idea expanded more, and I added things to my list that I needed to research. I read, I talked to experts, I browsed the internet (always finding at least three sources to verify collected information). In doing all of this, I continued to collect precious kernels of information that sparked new ideas and set me off in different directions. But, it was Francine Mathews, one of my fellow Rogue Women Writers, who taught me when it's time to stop. Her rule of thumb, when you find you know the information, when you're rereading things or listening to stories about things you already know, you've researched enough. At that point, you can move to the next phase and research only new things that require additional Intel.
Plotting like Mark Sullivan.
For my genre, plot is crucial. At the very least it's important to know where you're starting and where you want to end up. Mark taught a great workshop at a Colorado Gold Conference years ago called "The Controlling Premise" (CP). In that class, he detailed how he crafts the "elevator pitch" that we all attempt to create. Done properly, it gives you two sentences, no more than twenty-five words that guide you from start to finish. It can take days to get the CP right. Then, from that moment forward, everything you write must in some manner pertain to your premise.
Developing characters like Robin Perini and Laura Baker.
Every now and then you can find a "Discovering Story Magic" (DSM) being taught online. It's another Colorado Gold Conference gem, a course developed years ago by two authors, Robin Perini and Laura Baker. This method takes you to the heart of your characters and then—by using a step-by-step process—helps you to build three-dimensional characters and draw out your story. It's not that different from advice you'll be given by other writers at other conferences, but Robin and Laura roll it all up into one package and make it easy to understand. Using their character worksheet and putting must-have scenes into a storyboard while staying true to my controlling premise, I come away with a plan every time. I've been using this method since writing my second novel, DEATH OF A SONGBIRD, in 2000.
Ready. Set. Go!
Sound like a lot of work to get to the starting line? It is. But it's worth ounce of effort. Once I've done the above, I have a clear road map for my novel-in-progress.
Do I deviate from the plan? Yes.
Do I go off-road? Yes.
Do I go back and tweak the plan, tweak my CP, and rethink my characters? Yes, yes and yes.
There are always different ways of getting from the start to the finish. And I know authors who have taken every shortcut and side-road known to man. Some of them are still working on the same book now as they were when I met them. That's why I explore different routes of getting from Page One to The End, but I don't wander far off path. Why? Because once I'm done with doing the hard work laid out above, I know I've constructed a pretty solid route from here to there.
So, where am I in the process? Currently, I've started writing pages to explore the idea, I'm deep into the research, and I'm working on my controlling premise. Through writing, I'm learning quite a lot about my characters. I'm nearly ready to discover magic.