This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Planning the Next Book

            When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I probably had about two pages of notes on the plot and the characters before I started. The rest of it, or so I believed at the time, was in my head.
            The final product, in my humble opinion, was not bad at all. It was certainly good enough to publish, and the response has been encouraging, but at some level I feel I could have done better. Barry Bingham, former publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, used to say that a daily dissatisfaction with the product is at the heart of every great newspaper, and something like that applies to writers of every stripe.
            Taken to an extreme, that’s an attitude that can lead to writer’s block, substance abuse or worse. Perfection is always out of reach, and at some point the writer has to let the project go to press and move on. Still, as John Wooden used to say about basketball (and life): “You should never let what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can do.”

Planning Much More Carefully

            I’m now starting out on the second Quill Gordon mystery, which has a working title of Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from an Oliver Goldsmith poem. It’s a sequel to the first book only in the sense that it features the same main character and takes place after the action in the first book.
            Once again Gordon will be going on a fishing trip and finding himself caught up in a murder and the subsequent investigation. But the locale will be different, as will all the other characters. I’ve even given Gordon a new sidekick, with a different personality than the first one. If there are more books beyond the second one, my plan at the moment is to rotate Gordon’s buddies based on which one fits the given story better.
            After letting go of The McHenry Inheritance, I decided that in the next book I wanted to work on improving the characters, the plot and the dialogue. Primarily, I want to ratchet up the level of complexity in those three areas. Thinking it over, and stealing some writing tips I encountered since doing the first book, I decided to plan the next one more carefully before I started writing.

The Big Orange Notebook

            So I went out and made a tax-deductible investment of $3.25 in a lined notebook, 14.8 by 21 centimeters, manufactured by Rhodia of France. I’ve created a page or two for each chapter and character, plus additional sections for such things as place names and miscellaneous notes. Since November I’ve been filling those pages with longhand scribblings, done with several different Pilot Varsity fountain pens.
            Back in November, in a burst of creative energy, I wrote the first draft of the first third of the first chapter on two successive nights. More than anything else, that was to establish, for myself, a sense of style and mood. Since then the actual writing has been on hold until I have my notes in order for every section of the notebook.
            I’ve been writing down what happens when, what I want to show in each character, along with specific incidents, details and snatches of dialogue. And I think it’s helping. In the course of writing it down, connections are made and new ideas come up. It feels as if the book is becoming richer in my mind before I actually write it. The book that gets published will be the final proof of whether this approach worked, and if so, how well, but it’s good to feel I’m starting on the right foot.