Friday, March 20, 2009

Writing By Numbers
By Persia Walker

A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed to bring a sense or organization to my writing. The work would flow faster and be done quicker if I simply did more preparation. My usual way of writing was simply to get a story idea, jot down the high points, then sit down and go for it. The result was always a self-contradictory manuscript that got soft in the middle and the required multiple rewrites. Well, I was going to reform my ways. I was going to be organized.

I went to and bought that book by James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript. I'm sure that most writers have heard of Frey and his how-to books. I haven't read the How to Write a Damn Good Novel version, but I'm glad I read the one concerning mysteries.

It was an eye-opener. Oh, my. I saw everything I'd been doing wrong -- and everything I'd been doing right. Now, it was just a matter of moving from the instinctive to the intellectual, from guessing to knowing, from trial-and-error to figuring things out properly.

Frey recommends what he calls a stepsheet. It what the rest of us call a scene outline, or simply outline. His stepsheet, however, calls for you to list every scene with a description of what happens and how it leads to the next one. Simple, basic and essentially quite helpful. I'd usually written such things after I'd written my first draft. But now I was going to be a good girl and do it beforehand.

As usual, I have ideas for several stories in mind -- all of which I can't wait to start on. I decided that I would use organized approach for one of them, the least complicated story. I sat down to write this stepsheet -- and hit a wall.

All of the joy and sense of surprise that accompanies the writing of the first draft evaporated. I froze at the keyboard. Always a procrastinator, I suddenly found myself addicted to hours of Hulu. Nothing writerly got done. I couldn't even bring myself to work on the rewrite of my second Lanie Price book.

Finally, I sat down for lunch with a good friend, Catherine Maiorisi. She was very pointed and very direct. "Put the stepsheet aside and go back to what works best for you."

"But I want to be organized," I said. "I want to write like grown-ups do, get it done and get it right. How I write right now ... it's so ... so messy."

She shrugged. "But it works. When you're messy, you're creative. When you're neat, you sink."

I thought about it, came home and picked up the Frey book. It's such a wonderful book. Having read it, I now see the framework he outlines in just about every commercially successful mystery I read. It seems so obvious, you know? But if it's all that obvious, why can't I do it?

Grrrr ...

But Catherine was right. I'm not an organized person and my attempt to force my mind to work in a way that's absolutely antipathetic was actually blocking my process.

I put the Frey book aside and turned on my laptop. I opened Scrivener, my favorite writing program, and started a new document. A blank white digital page is every bit as intimidating as a blank physical one. Trust me.

So I did what one can't do with a typewriter. I turned off the lights.

That's right. I turned down the screen lighting to the point where everything disappeared. Then I closed my eyes just to make sure, put my fingers to the keyboard and began to type.

Oh my, what a relief! No outlines, no rules, no bright blank page. Just me and my imagination.

I'm averaging a thousand words a day now. As usual, I only know the beginning. I have only the vaguest idea of the ending. Will the story amount to anything? I haven't the faintest idea. I only know how much fun it is to love writing again, instead of viewing it as a task.

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, meanwhile, has an honored place on my bookshelf. The lessons it contains will reside in my subconscious, where they belong. They will inform all of my writing from now on, but as a collaborating, but not dominant voice.

Yes, it feels good to be messy again.


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