I’m roughly one chapter away from THE END on my current work in process. Okay, so it’s the end of my first draft, but THE END is always sweet, no matter which stage. This book is number two out of a planned trio, so at this point, I’m one-hundred and fifty thousand words into this project. And yet, I’m still suffering writer’s growing pains.
Seriously, it seems every time I think I’m getting this writing stuff figured out, I discover new, harder skills I must master. The latest: threading in clues and dropping hints – throughout all three books in the series.
You see, this project is a stretch for me because I have a suspense element linking the three books together – something I’ve never attempted before. Typically, I write character-driven stories, which means I can pick a supporting character from one book and make them the star of the next book fairly easily because the action in book one rarely plays a part in the plot of book two. But when you have a suspense element bonding your stories together, that element – and the role it plays in all three plots – has to be consistent and believable.
My issue with that: How the devil do you stamp one book FINISHED before you’ve completed all three first drafts?
Book One, Peace of Heart, was my goal project for our first Ice Bucket Bikini challenge. The benchmark I set was “publish ready.” On deadline day, I had a very well vetted first draft but not a product I would be willing to push Publish on, so I took my dunking like a woman. As I approached the end of that book and began my “mental plotting” for book two, Darcy’s Dilemma, I realized there were several Darcy threads that needed to be woven into Becca’s story (POH). Unfortunately, until I got my feet wet with Darcy’s story, I didn’t know exactly what those threads were. Welcome to my mind-boggling Catch-22.
Now here I am, closing in on the end of Darcy’s Dilemma, and guess what I’m realizing? Yep, you guessed it. I need to weave in threads for Book Three, but until I write the cliffhanger for the suspense element, I won’t know exactly which threads needs to be included – and even then, I figure I’ll have to get halfway through book three before I’m sure I made all the right plot moves in book two. (I have to remind myself I’m not crazy, I’m a writer.)
So, back to my original question: How the devil do you know you’re ready to hit Publish on a suspense-driven book before you’ve written the entire series? (Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer.)
Is mastering suspense elements some kind of advanced skill I’m going to have to study, train and practice in order to master? Or, is there some innate talent that suspense authors possess that I lack? Worse yet, is this one of those issues that can only be resolved with heavy plotting?
As I’m gearing up to put these thoughts/fears/frustrations into words for this post, I’m trying to work out an answer in the back of my mind, and here’s what I’ve come up with – it’s a combination of all three.
Skill – writing is a craft, and like all crafts, there are skills that must be mastered. Some are basic (spelling, grammar, sentence structure); some are intermediate (pacing, characterization, story structure); some are advanced (mastering deep POV, getting emotion on the page, weaving story threads). Ironically, what rates as basic, intermediate and advanced can vary with each specific writer. For instance, comma placement is a no-brainer for me, but I know several writers who would rate commas as an intermediate skill, just as I know several writers who would label story threads as a basic skill. I think these different levels of craft-mastery are a big reason why the same basic plot turns into such diverse stories in the hands of different authors. We all use the same tools, but it’s our skill with each one that determines our final product.
Talent – writing, particularly story-telling, is an art, and like all art, it requires an innate talent. Craft can only get you so far. In fact, I’d wager we’ve all read superbly crafted stories that failed to touch us. It’s the emotions in our stories that touch readers, and those emotions are what transform well-crafted words and sentences into art that move us. Fortunately, talent can be nurtured and developed, so just because suspense writing doesn’t come naturally for me, that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It means I’ll have to work harder to do it, but hard work often yields great results – and awesome personal growth.
Plotting – plotting is a necessary evil for story-telling, and like craft elements, each writer ranks plotting differently. For me, since I’m predominantly a character-driven writer, plotting is generally a minor part of my pre-writing. Getting to know my characters, the events that have shaped them into who they are on page one, and discovering who they want to be at THE END, propels me through the first half of my stories. Somewhere near the midpoint, I pause to consider what’s already happened and what needs to happen to get them to their end goal. That’s my typical version of plotting.
Suspense plotting, I’m learning, is an entirely different beast. Even with my attempt to layer in a suspense element, my stories are still character-driven, so I’m not completely reinventing my writing-wheel. However, if I wish to incorporate a suspense thread throughout a series without sentencing myself to numerous rewrites, I realize I will need to learn to pre-plot that element.
The great news here – just like refining your craft and nurturing your talent, polishing your plotting is something you can accomplish through practice and training – and in my case, the encouragement and feedback of awesome, devious, suspense-minded critique partners.
I have to admit; this trio of stories didn’t start out as a series. Peace of Heart was originally intended as a standalone, but when I decided to pursue self-publishing, I realized it would be a smart career move to turn it into a three-book package. Originally, the suspense element was designed to span a single story. A good deal of my current growing pains comes from escalating what was a single crime into an ongoing suspense thread. Not sure my muse will encourage me to do another suspense story line in the future, but if she does, you can bet I’m going to learn from this experience and plot the crap out of whatever suspense element she throws at me.
For now, I’m concentrating on embracing this new challenge and incorporating this new skill into my toolbox, rather than dwelling on the painful aspect of growing as a writer. Wish me luck!
Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.