Monday, 22 February 2016

What's the Hardest Part of the Writing Process?

I once participated in an author panel discussion in which we were asked to name the part of the writing process we found most difficult. Some of my colleagues explained why they found revision and editing to be the most challenging phase, while someone else talked about getting a new idea started as being particularly difficult for them.

My answer then, and now, is that I find writing the first draft of a new novel to be much more difficult than any other part of the writing process.

This may sound surprising to those of you who know that I spend at least the first two weeks of a new project writing a detailed outline of the story I'm about to begin. As I've explained before, it's essential for me when writing a crime novel to know up front exactly how the investigation will unfold, what evidence will be unearthed, and--most importantly--how the story will end. Only when I have a complete understanding of the plot, the main characters (including suspects) and the basic themes, do I consider it safe to begin actually telling the story. When I write the first draft, I need to know when I get up in the morning where I am in the story and what I need to accomplish that day.

And yet, with all this advance preparation, the first draft is harder than revision, editing, or marketing?

It's a question of confidence. Writing a first draft is like walking a very long and very high tightrope. You know your destination--that roof on the other side of the street--and you have the rope beneath your feet, in a straight line, that you only need to follow to safety. And yet ... I'm not sure I'll make it. Is the story idea strong enough? Are the characters working or are they too flat? Should I switch to first person? Do I even like this guy I'm writing about???

I mention all this now because yesterday I just completed the first draft of my new manuscript The Long Road into Darkness. Featuring Tom Faust, a recently-retired homicide investigator, it tells the story of an unsolved murder of a family in central Ontario and how it comes back to haunt Tom, the lead investigator at the time, seventeen years later.

It has taken me six months to complete this draft, working about four hours a day, pretty much every day. It's a long, long haul filled with self-doubt and stress. And yes, a couple of switches in point of view and a few tweaks to the outline to improve the story as it unfolded.

Now, I feel an enormous sense of relief. The story's been told. It has held together, the characters have worked more or less the way I want them to, and the themes are there.

Now comes the fun part. Now I'll go back to the beginning and run through the whole thing again. Tighten the prose, rewrite passages that aren't working properly, maybe even beef up a few scenes to bring out more clearly what I'm trying to say.

The pressure's off, you see. The story now exists. Now I get to play with it, and to make sure it sings.

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