Friday, May 27, 2016

Reds on Writing: Debs on the Tortoise and the Hare

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  Seventeen (almost, more on that in a minute) novels, and I'm still looking for the Magic Bullet. I know, of course, that there is no such thing, and when I speak to writers' groups I always emphasize that. But... Here's where it gets sticky.

I am admittedly slow. But this book has been a bear. On the first of July, it will be two years since I turned in the manuscript for TO DWELL IN DARKNESS. TWO. Now, that's bad. Even for me. Although there has been a book that took longer. (I'm looking at it, stacked on my desk, and the one that came after, which was half the length and took half the time.)

Dear hubby says that I lack project management skills. And that I procrastinate. Both are probably true. I SAY that multiple view point, multiple story line, and sometimes multiple time line novels are HARD. And I am a plotter and a planner, a writer who has to work out who all these characters are and how everything fits together in the intimate history of the setting... At least those are my excuses, and I'm the first to admit they probably are excuses.

BUT, I say. Surely there is a way to do it better, and faster, and that I'll get the next book finished in LESS than a year. My agent, after twenty-three years (Yikes!) just laughs.

And I'm now in what I think of as the Chute. The book--GARDEN OF LAMENTATIONS-- is in the publisher's schedule. (February, 2017!) It has a cover. It's up on my website, and doesn't it look gorgeous?  

A big chunk of the manuscript has gone to the illustrator, wonderful Laura Maestro, so that she can start on the accompanying map.  And I have to finish the last...(mumble, mumble) pages in the next two weeks. (This is my new downstairs library table/desk that was pristine two weeks ago. It's now a mess of multiple outlines and notes and books--and cat. Imagine what it will look like two weeks from now...)

I think this makes me the Hare.

The good news is that I know how it all fits together now. (Chapter/scene outline done all the way the way to the end!) I have to get to a certain point before I can do this, but once I do, it rocks.

REDS and writer friends, I want to know. Do you write a regular, set amount, from beginning to end? Or do you find that books reach a tipping point where it all comes together and you blast through to the last page? 

And what about other big, long term projects, everyone? Are you tortoises or hares?


  1. I can only imagine your frustration when the writing is difficult, but it's exciting to hear that the book has a publication date because I'm really looking forward to reading "Garden of Lamentations" [and I love the cover].

    I am very, very good at procrastination, which often makes big projects overwhelming when the deadline is upon me and I simply have to get them done. And often the projects I feel most confident about completing are the ones that give me the most trouble . . . .

  2. Thanks for this. As someone who has the temperament of a hare and the stamina and strength of a tortoise I can totally relate to this analogy. My days are a constant struggle to slow down long enough to enjoy the journey. I'm working on a debut novel. I got 33k words in before I realised how little I knew about the craft of writing. I had the story, the characters, and even the chapters outlined. What I hadn't figured out was point of view and the difference between story and back story. I've also learned what it means to show and not tell. This is all thanks to an incredible group of writers who have asked me to join them and I shall be eternally indebted to them. So now I write a chapter and edit it 3-5 times, then move on to the next. As I said in my own blog it's a method that resembles finding an angel in a slab of marble, but I get there in the end! Looking forward to reading your next whenever it is ready. Take your time, an angel is worth waiting for! Susanna MacLeod

  3. Some of both! In first draft I write a set number of words a day, but the middle always goes more slowly. I love when the end is in sight and I can rock and roll to the finish.

    And I can't wait to read the new book! Yes, the cover is fabulous.

  4. I'm a hare on most things EXCEPT writing a novel. That's because my pattern is writing in circles instead of a straight lines. Dither. Dither Dither. Write. Rethink. Revise. Dither. Write. Second guess. Revise. Write. Hit self in the head because I've written myself into a corner. Rethink. Revise... And the more book I've written, the less trivial it becomes each time to circle back and right the ship.

    Love your cover! Love the title! And I can't wait to read what Duncan and Gemma are up to.

    You're reminding me that while I'm waiting for my book to come back from the editor with comments I should be starting the next one. Because two years to write a book isn't unusual for me. At least I have an idea. A tiny little nugget. And if I didn't do so much dithering in the beginning and just got on with the circling back, I'd be done in time.

  5. Happy dance here in northern Ohio!! Love the cover, love the title, love that the end is in sight for you!!!! And, will be circling the wagons and shooting anyone who gets in my gun sight come February if they get between me and my copy of Garden of Lamentations....

    I'm the hare. I'm the tortoise. I'm the hare. I'm the tortoise. You get the picture--sometimes on the same project. BUT, I never give up and I always get where I need/want to be in the end.

  6. Me too, on loving the cover Debs! We're so glad you're nearing the end. I had to laugh about your helpful hubby and the project management chart. Maybe he could finish it for you LOL.

    The more I write, the less I outline. But on the other hand, you have NO novels in your trunk, (see yesterday's blog) and I have plenty--so obviously your way works for you!

    Susannah, big congrats on getting so far in a first novel AND realizing you needed help AND finding it! We will look forward to your book.

    You got this Debs!! xox

  7. Susanna - those were all the things I didn't know when I started writing and thought I did. So hard to discover it's not just "this happens and then this happens..."

    When I started writing and taking classes and joining a writing group, I had a yellow sticky on my computer screen that said


  8. Debs! I cannot wait!!!! I would shout "Hurry, Hurry!" but a new Deborah Crombie is always worth the wait. (love the cover!)

  9. Deb--remind your husband of the six phases of a project

    1. Enthusiasm,
    2. Disillusionment,
    3. Panic,
    4. Search for the guilty,
    5. Punishment of the innocent, and
    6. Praise and honor for the nonparticipants.

    However you do it, I don't care. I cannot wait!

  10. Project management is my life, and it's not the same thing as writing a book at all. I know from the beginning when it will finish. The cast of characters and the exact things they do may change, but I usually have all that figured out, too, at least six weeks before completion. Nobody takes off in their own directions, falls in love, or turns up unexpectedly dead. We all go onstage the exact minute we're supposed to, the concert is great and, as every single running script I've ever written ends, everyone goes home happy. That's because, while mine is a creative endeavor, I never bear the responsibility for bringing anyone to life, helping them grow and develop, or putting them through the worst and best experiences of their lives. The kind of work you do as an author is the deepest form of creativity, and creativity needs time to take root, grow, and ripen into a finished book. If you rush it, you make decisions for your characters--he has to go down that alley, whether he wants to or not--and soon the mechanics of the plot take over from the genuine motivations of the characters. That's not as good a book as you get when you let the characters do what they want and need to do. Sure, you can crank out a mechanical book once a year if you have to, but it will suck all the joy out of the experience for you, your characters, and ultimately for your readers as well.

  11. Barb Ross, I think about that all the time, it is inevitable, and completely true. !

    My favorite part of writing is that moment, which I always think will never come, when I can actually see the end of the book. I don't necessarily know precisely what it is, but I can see the way to get there.

    Those are the moments when I have said to people… If I could just write for five more days without stopping I could be done.
    And it always makes me wonder: how do I know that? How do I know that's how much time it would take? Somehow, knock on wood, the path always appears.

    Even though after slogging through the middle, step-by-step, inch by inch, Bird by Bird, I always fear it won't happen

    Go Debs!! We are all eager to read it,. Xx

  12. Gigi, exactly! We've all picked up a book at some point and realized that the characters no longer interest us--they're just going through the motions of what has become a formula. So, yeah, I'll rein in my impatience and say, "Take as long as you need--all of my favorite writers--the end result is SO worth the wait!"

  13. Barb Ross, I love that!

    Gigi, yes, every day is a discovery. And a big part of my writing days are spent thinking, "Would he really say that?" or "Would she really do this?" And you can't make your characters do things just to fit the formula...

    Hank, so funny. I knew how many chapters this book would be well before I got to the end of the outline, because that just seems to be how the books work out. And I seem to tell stories in close to the same word length, and the slice-of-life action in the book usually takes about the same amount of time, even though I don't plan it that way.

    I usually can see the end of the book fairly early on, even though lots of surprises can come up in the middle, but I didn't get there with this book until last week. I always knew more or less what was going to happen, but not the emotional ending, if that makes sense. Such a relief to finally see those scenes in my head!

    You are all so nice, and I feel very encouraged!

  14. Susannah, congratulations on your progress on your first novel--and on finding a great group of writers to work with. That makes such a difference.

    Hallie, I love your sticky. I've always written in scenes, but I still check every sentence to make sure I haven't slipped out of point of view. So much of that is POV character ascribing an emotion or a feeling to another character THAT THE POV CHARACTER CAN'T REALLY KNOW. I am obviously nit-picky about this!

  15. Oh Debs! 2 years to write a book - that's no time at all, especially if you have a rich life, which you do. This of course is coming from someone who writes on what I shall call the 5-15 year plan :) Your books are worth the time you take to write them. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the quality results!! xo

  16. Two years and a few months ago a well known author invited me to meet her for a drink. I was delighted to accept, of course. I picked her up at her house, and almost the first words out of her mouth were "Don't mention this on Facebook. I am on a deadline and want my editor to think I'm busy writing". Can't say who this might be, but I'm very glad she took time out of her schedule for drinks and walking shopping.

    I suspect many people work best under a deadline. If I could write a book and know it would end up on the NYT best seller list, get translated into a jillion languages and manage to keep readers coming back for decades, I tell critics of my working style to write their own damn book if they think they can do better. There is no wrong way to achieve success.

  17. Debs, I'm so excited about Garden of Lamentations! The cover is stunning, and I know the content will match! Two years doesn't really seem like a long time to write a book, but it is a long time to wait to read more Duncan and Gemma, although it is indeed well worth the wait.

  18. Ann, LOL. I WAS on a deadline, and I did finish the book. And I'm sure it was the better for conversation with a friend and a nice glass of wine:-)

  19. Oh this is funny. I meant to comment about an hour ago, but I got sidetracked by "library table." I want to re-outfit my office--I hate my desk. So now it's an hour later, after Googling "library table." :-)

    I hear you on project management--I mean, I couldn't even keep myself on track to write a comment!

    I'm a tortoise having to be a hare for the first time. I'm finding it a tad stressful. :-) But moving over to Scrivener seems to have helped speed me up a bit. It's interesting what you say about blasting through to the end. I was moving along okay until the end, and then I crashed. So now I'm revising without having completed the first draft--yeeks. But now I know the story, so I'm hoping that the end will come together ...

    I love the title "Garden of Lamentations" -- I can't wait to read it. I always looks forward to your books.

  20. Lisa, I have dining room table for a desk in my upstairs office (it's Shaker style, and I had it made--and finished--at an "unfinished" furniture store. If you're looking for somewhere to spread out that's an option you might consider.) But I like writing downstairs in my sunporch for at least part of the day, and for a couple of years had been using a little rolling lap top desk and shoving all my paraphernalia on top of the dog crate. Not ideal! Then a couple of weeks ago I saw this table at a garage sale down the street, and am loving it.

    Oh, a tip for all you typists: I had the upstairs table made at keyboard height, and shortened the library table downstairs. That makes a HUGE difference if you're typing all day.

  21. Thanks, Deb -- a dining room table sounds like an option too. And I LOVE the idea of shortening the legs!

  22. Great commentary on yourself as writer, Debs.

    I'm a tortoise at first, followed by a spring into life as a hare, that is unless I fall down the rabbit hole.

  23. So excited to read the new book! I love your books and for what it's worth, I am in awe of all the complexity, characters and story lines that are woven together so beautifully. I can imagine that wouldn't be a fast process.

    I don't write novels but I put together content for my website, guides, ebooks, blogs, etc. I've got this beast of a 7 ebook bundle I've been working on for over a year and I am finding it super helpful to work on the last part at the library. Kind of like those research papers in college. No distractions, just down to business so I can go home and relax ASAP. this helps me get more "hare" moments in so I can get big chunks done as fast as possible.

    Good luck!! Hope it flows for you :)

  24. I just want to say that every book you write is worth the wait .. and I apologize for that time I emailed you and said to HURRY UP because I was I n Gemma and Duncan withdrawal. I have never written a novel, but I wrote a dissertation once, and I've written some articles and book chapters, and in my experience there is a tipping point where it finally all makes sense and I just barrel through to the end. My problem is that that happens about the same time I lose interest in the project. I guess the real fun is in the "trying to figure it out" part.

  25. I love the series, and if it takes a bit longer to craft such beautifully interwoven plots, then it's worth the wait. Of course, I only just finished (and reviewed) Where Memories Lie, so I have a while before I go into withdrawal. Creative work also requires some down time for ideas to properly brew. Hugs! <3

  26. In my pre-fiction days, especially as a ghostwriter, I seldom had more than three months to write a book. That was great discipline. My first and most popular novel, "The Long Walk Home" (which has been in print since 2007) burst out of me in 90 days and was in an auction among three NY publishers within three weeks. I'm not bragging; it was all a mystery to me. Each subsequent novel has taken longer and longer. I have tried to outline but it doesn't work for me. It feels like a straitjacket. When I begin I generally have only three things: a setting, a couple of characters who interest me, and some underlying theme I'm exploring. And I almost always have the opening without thinking about it: it has to raise questions the reader wants answered. (My favorite opening line in one of my books is, "At first he thought it was a deer.") From there on every day is a surprise. Characters show up from who knows where, boss me around, complicate my life, and generally are unruly. And in my "Davies & West" British mystery series I sometimes find I'm completely wrong about the murderer and only discover that in the last few chapters. I just shake my head and say thank you for letting me know. Will North