I’m nearly done with the first complete draft of my work-in-progress, currently titled The Midwife’s Confession, and if you were to check it for the most often used word (after “the” and “and” and character names), I bet it would be “plant.” Even though I’ve outlined ad nauseum, the characters and story change as I write, which necessitates changes in the chapters I’ve already written. Rather than stopping my momentum by returning to the earlier chapters to make the changes, I type the word “plant” followed by my brilliant new idea. Once I finish the current draft, I’ll do a search on the word “plant” and write down longhand all the changes I need to make in the next draft.
I write a very sloppy first draft for two main reasons: one is that I know I’ll need to make a million changes as the story emerges, so there’s no point in making it pretty the first time through, and two, I want to write fast to get the entire story down. That’s nerves, I think. I’m anxious to get it all down to see where I stand and what needs to be fixed. I can always pretty the writing up later; it’s the story and its structure, pacing and characterization that matter to me during the first draft. I envy those writers who polish as they go, ending up with a clean, nearly complete book by the end of their first draft. I’ve given up trying to make that system work for me. We all have to figure out what works for us as writers. There is no right or wrong way to write a book.
I take about nine months to write a book and although I don’t have a set schedule, here is how my timing usually works out. During the first month, I come up with the idea for the story–the “what happens.” I start working on the outline, completing it sometime during the second month. Then I begin working on preliminary research, learning just enough to see how it will influence the story. Month three, I get to know my characters on a new level, using a variety of techniques I’ve developed over the years. Learning about my characters continues throughout the entire writing process. The next few months I spend writing, fiddling, restructuring, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Around month five, I start seriously writing the first draft, and as I mentioned, the surprises continue and I fill the draft with “plants.”
Here’s an example of a plant from The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. When I outlined the book, Eve (CeeCee’s alias during her secret life) didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis. As I wrote the first draft, I hit a chapter late in the book in which Eve was suddenly limping, and I decided she should have RA. It would give the story and her character an interesting new dimension. So I wrote (plant: Eve has RA). In the second draft, I went back into those earlier chapters and “gave” her symptoms of RA. There were other more intriguing plants that came up during the writing of that book, but I’d be giving away too much if I told you what they were here. Suffice it to say, if you were surprised as you read that book, I was probably just as surprised as I wrote it!
I’m going back to work on The Midwife’s Confession right now. Can’t wait to see what I’ll plant next!