Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Blank Page

© Marta Stephens 2008, all rights reserved

Long before I decided to write fiction, my first love was art, so I can't help but compare the writing process to the method I use when I oil paint. In both instances I begin with a white surface that begs to be filled. I start with an outline of the shapes (my plot), determine the perspective points (point of view character), and then decide the direction of the light and shadows (those wonderful subplots, twists, and turns). Obviously there's more to consider when we write, but all the same, it is a layering process of writing, editing, and letting the prose rest. If you were to paint an object in the foreground of the canvas before the background was dry to the touch, you'd end up with a muddied mess. Writing is no different. It can't be rushed.

When I start working on a new novel I consider the crime first. What happened, who did it, how, when, and why? It's essential to the development of the plot. Next comes the cast of characters. Several of the characters such as Homicide Detective Sam Harper and his partner Dave Mann appear in all of my books, however, the villains change and I usually introduce two or three other protagonists. I write back stories on each new character to understand their motivation. A brief synopsis will give me a rough idea of the storyline; the order of the events and how I want the book to end. Details don't play a role at this point of the planning, all I'm trying to do is understand the big picture rather than the individual scenes and of course, all of this is apt to change as the story evolves. I also find that making a list of the chapters along with a brief 1-2 line description of what happens in each helps me keep an eye on the timeline. The characters and deciding how their paths will cross is the next critical step -- developing the subplots.

The second and most important thing for me to do is to get inside the character's head. I have to understand his motivation, what has led him to this point, how does the character feel physically, mentally, spiritually, and what external factors are affecting his behavior or decisions. Without a clear understanding of these things, it's hard to know how the character will act, react, and cope with the situation he is in. I also try to get a feel for what good or bad things are going on outside of the character's control that may affect him emotionally (i.e.: friends, family, job, relationships, weather, etc.).

Of course, nothing is written in stone and several factors may come into play, but once I'm comfortable with the direction the manuscript is going in, I can usually type a chapter a day, let it rest for several days and then go back and work on the edits. I may go through this process six or seven times a chapter before I'm ready to move on to the next one. Eventually I'll read the entire manuscript and start tweaking the prose and adding details.

My method certainly doesn't guarantee that there won't be rewrites. There are always plenty, but regardless of the process used, there are no fast and easy solutions or magic wands to completing a novel. It's a never-ending process that takes patience, practice, and perseverance.

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I'm an author of crime mystery. My debut novel, SILENCED CRY (2007), is available from several online shops like, Amazon, B&N, Borders, MAM. The second in the Sam Harper series, THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (yup, changed the title), will be available fall 2008. I'm currently working on the third book in the series and hope to have it out in 2009.

You'll find more of my writing posted every Wednesday on MURDER BY 4.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Writing a Series

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

I never intended to write a series. It just happened -- couldn't get enough of the characters. But whenever I mention that my Sam Harper books are a series, the same questions keep coming up: "Are they a sequel? Does one book pick up where the other leaves off?"

No, although subtle references are made in each subsequent book to previous characters or events, the books in my series are stand alone works. The reader will be able to read any one of the Sam Harper Crime Mystery books and know the characters well without having to read the previous books, but please, don't let that stop you!!

Although I write crime, the relationships between characters play a major role in their development. One reviewer put it like this: " ... the characters are real - they hurt, they fall in love, they suffer angst and explode with anger." Therefore, what will be obvious to those who begin with book one, SILENCED CRY, is how the characters mature and grow on personal and professional levels throughout the series. The police captain forces Harper and Mann into a partnership in SILENCED CRY which of course causes some friction. Although they have their differences, they eventually work things out. So too, they learn from each other which is true to how real life relationships work.

The beauty of a series is that they feature the same set of characters who are placed in different situations. They are allowed to respond to new challenges based on previous experiences. The cast of regulars such as Sam Harper, his father Walt, Sam's detective partner, Dave Mann, forensics expert, Carter Grave and crusty medical examiner, Jack Fowler will help usher in new criminals and a few interesting players in each subsequent book. Although the plots may change drastically, each book will have its own unique set of twists and turns and impossible crimes for Harper to solve. And dare I mention it? In the second book Harper falls for a woman who drives him crazy but makes him weak at the knees.

For me, writing a series has been a labor of love but not without trials and errors. I was fortunate to stumble onto my characters early in my writing career. It's taken time, however, to really get to know them but I find that with each new book, their dialogue and interactions with other characters has become easier to write. Sometime, if I'm lucky, they dictate the story which makes things easier and allows me the chance to focus on developing the plot.

SILENCED CRY was a series of "firsts." Like all new writers, I was learning the craft, trying to create believable characters, attempting to find my voice, sorting through "my" style of writing, while creating an interesting, complicated plot that would hold the reader's interest. Although I continued to work on all of those points, by the time the second book became a reality, I had settled into a rhythm and the story poured out of me--first draft, 63,000 words in 83 days. Granted, I spent the next several months editing it, but it was tremendously fun book to write.

Now as I work on the third book, I've discovered an exciting new idea to ponder. One of the new characters demands her own series and I'm faced with a unique (at least to me) challenge; to make sure that her characterization fits the plot and works well in this book but that traits will make her a strong, likeable protagonist in her own right.