HABITS OF THE PRODUCTIVE WRITER

- by Rebecca York

Recently I was asked to be guest author for a book-in-a-week challenge group. Of course, that got me thinking about my own writing method. I write two to four books a year, which means I have to keep working at a steady pace.

Long ago, I used to write slowly, then spend a lot of time editing. I figured out about fifteen years ago that I could write fast, then fix any problems later–if something needed fixing. But part of my process is to start each day editing the text I wrote the day before. That gets me back into the story.

A key factor that allows me to write fast is having an outline to work from. With an outline, I know where the book is going. Without one, I might write scenes that don’t really fit into the book. I know outlining is difficult for some writers, but it’s a skill that can be learned. And I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to fix a fifteen-page outline than it is to fix the same things in a 400-page book.

Even when I have an outline, I must think about every scene as I write it. Often my outline is very vague on details. It might say, “And then they escape from the psychotic killers,” and I have to figure out what’s really happening and if it’s even going to work the way I thought it would.

Also, I don’t think a writer can justify a scene just for “character development.” It’s got to also advance the plot in some way.

Since I’m writing romantic suspense, I must make sure that each scene carries both the relationship and the suspense. For example, if the hero and heroine are going to kiss or make love, they must also be thinking about the danger stalking them. Often, I also alternate scenes with the bad guys looking for them or planning what they’re going to do to them when they catch up.

There are times when I write a scene that I know isn’t quite right. I write it anyway so I can move forward and think of it as “holding the place” for the scene that’s going to work better. If you’re trying to write really fast, you may have to go with that concept. On the other hand, sometimes I do get stalled. If a scene simply won’t flow at all, it means I don’t understand the character motivation. Or I haven’t blocked out the action well enough. If any of that’s true, I GET UP from the computer. Sometimes just walking away for a while helps me think. Other times, it may take a couple of days to figure out what’s wrong. In that case, I might pick up another project until I get unstuck.

When I develop a story, I think about character and plot at the same time. My h/h must be the right ones for the story I’m telling. And the plot must be designed for THOSE CHARACTERS. I try not to have someone do something “out of character” just because I want or need it to happen. I call that “jerking the characters around for the sake of the plot.” If I want the heroine to do something stupid, I start early in the book establishing that she WOULD do it. In LASSITER’S LAW, for example, I have her creating the crisis for the action climax by turning herself over to the bad guy. I start very early in the story building up to that moment so the reader would believe she’d done it.

In KILLING MOON, my hero, Ross Marshall, is a werewolf detective who uses his wolf senses to solve crimes. His specialty is finding missing persons, and as the story opens, he’s stalking a serial killer. But he’s also concerned about his genetic heritage. Which is why I pair him with a woman who’s a physician and a genetic specialist. They meet after the killer wounds him, and she saves his life. Yet she knows he has secrets and wonders what kind of man she’s fallen in love with. As the plot unfolds she becomes entangled in the investigation. Five years ago, Ross ripped out the throat of another serial killer after the cops failed to act. He’s sworn never to kill again. Until he has to save the heroine’s life.

As I develop the plot and characters, I also think about the location. Where will this story take place? LASSITER’S LAW is set in Western Maryland because I wanted the heroine to be hiding out in the rural environment where she grew up.

KILLING MOON is set in the Maryland/DC area because that’s where I live, and I know it well. My werewolf lives out in the country where he can roam in wolf form. But he has easy access to the DC suburbs. I also picked the location because I think people find this setting interesting.

When I have enough details to feel comfortable with my location, I get to work, although I might have to do some research as I write. For KILLING MOON, I drove to Montgomery Mall and got to know the shopping center.

For LASSITER’S LAW, I relied on trips I’d taken to Western Maryland.

I’ve been asked if I wait for inspiration or work every day. My answer is that a career novelist must make a commitment to a regular work schedule. If I’m writing a first draft, I try to produce ten pages a day. Sometimes I can do more, but if I push too hard, I’m likely to turn out less the next day.

The good news is that the more you write, the easier it becomes. I think everybody’s got a “writing muscle.” Like any other muscle, it becomes stronger with exercise.

So don’t be afraid to plunge in. Give yourself permission to write pages that are less than perfect. You can always fix them later.

One comments

  1. Good post, thanks. This advice is hard for me to accept:

    “””Also, I don’t think a writer can justify a scene just for “character development.” It’s got to also advance the plot in some way.”””

    I’m going to have to think about that one some more, because I like writing some scenes primarily to develop characters.