My first novel, SACRIFICE FLY, took way too long to write. If there was an excuse for not writing, I found it. If I couldn’t find an excuse, I came up with a creative one. (Creativity that should have been going into the book.) Among the most powerful and self-imposed excuses: I didn’t know what was going to come next. I don’t outline, so not knowing the next scene shut down the writing process until I had figured it out. This cost me valuable writing time, even though I was pretty confident of some scenes I needed later in the story.
Guest column by Tim O’Mara, a teacher in the New York City
public school system. Raised on Long Island, he lives in
Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen with his wife and daughter. He
is the author of SACRIFICE FLY, a debut mystery (Oct. 2012,
Minotaur) that Library Journal called “a resounding debut.”
This year, I finished the first draft of my second book, Chin Music. I had myself on a workable schedule—I’m a middle school teacher—and a goal of reaching the halfway point of the novel by the end of the school year. I did it. By the end of June, I had written the first 50,000 words, and I had July and August to finish the second half. Problem was, I didn’t know what word 50,001 was going to be. I knew I needed another scene with the victim’s mother and uncle, and also knew I needed a scene with the victim’s alcoholic father. What I didn’t know was what came next, so I allowed myself to do something I’d never attempted before … I wrote out of sequence.
Write Out of Sequence. Writing out of sequence is risky. It’s a bit like writing a check without knowing exactly how much cash you’ve got in your checking account. But, as any writer will tell you, writing is better than not writing any day of the week.
So I wrote the scene with the victim’s mother and uncle and then the scene with the father at his favorite gin mill. I had these scenes mapped out in my head before putting them into my laptop. They were good, they were tight, and, best of all, once they were actually written, they opened up plot lines I hadn’t realized were there. By the time I was done writing scenes out of sequence, the rest of the story took on a real shape.
Use Index Cards to Keep Your Story Straight. I placed the scenes I’d written on index cards and laid them out on my bed. I put them in the order in which I believed they would be in the novel and left empty spaces between them representing the scenes I still had to write. I put those unwritten scenes on yellow index cards and filled up the empty spaces. (Except for the ending, which was still too murky for me.) Yellow index card after yellow index card, I started to write the rest of the book. I then allowed myself to write an ending I was not completely happy with, knowing I’d have to come back to it. But before Labor Day hit, I’d completed the first draft of Chin Music.
I achieved my goal of finishing the first draft before returning to my day job only because I had trusted myself enough to write out of sequence. As of this writing, I am awaiting my editor’s comments, looking forward to working the second draft, and sketching out the early parts of my third Raymond novel.
Now I’m considering another break from my usual writing patterns: outlining this time … But not too much.
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