Well, The Loot is out and in the wild, and we’re still on track for an October release of Right to the Kill, the next Harmony Black novel (at long last). I still have to do final print layout on that, the least-fun part of creating a book. It’s lunchtime, so while my leftovers heat up I thought I’d write a little about what I’m working on right now, and about process.
I’m fascinated by process. If you’re an artist of any stripe and we sit down for drinks, I will almost unquestionably interrogate you about what you do, how you do it, and the choices you make. Whether someone is a writer, a musician, an actor, I always learn something new. My process is heavily outline-driven; I know a lot of writers can just sit down with a blank page and craft a story as they tell it, and that’s really impressive, but that skill is beyond me. I need a road map to get from point A to point B.
Right now, I’m outlining the follow-up to Right to the Kill. The next three Harmony books form a loose trilogy. As such, I had to conceptualize an overarching concept and figure out the ending even before I sat down to write one word of RttK. That’s been a big help, going into the second book. All the same, my early steps generally entail writing down the really big beats and the high notes. What’s the theme of this story? What am I trying to say? How do I want you to feel, when you read it, and what’s the craftiest way to make that happen?
After emotion and theme comes plot. In the case of an ongoing series, some of the heavy lifting happens naturally. For instance, in the Daniel Faust series, The Neon Boneyard ended with Dan agreeing to take on a new apprentice; it’s not a big surprise to tell you that The Locust Job will largely involve the consequences of that choice. Series characters have ongoing business and ongoing problems, so there’s always a sense of “oh, yeah, we have to address that for sure.”
Details suggest more details, and as a plot begins to percolate, I have to make a lot of structural decisions. Right to the Kill is intended to be a good jumping-on point for new readers; as such, I kept references to other series and big chunks of continuity minimized. With book six of the series, that’s no longer possible: Harmony and Jessie have to confront the fallout from Wisdom’s Grave head-on, as a fugitive from a parallel Earth threatens to spark the mother of all diplomatic incidents. Also, the plans Bobby Diehl made in the epilogue to Cold Spectrum – and the dark alliance he made – are in full motion.
But nobody likes infodumps, right? So I have to look at each and every piece of out-of-book continuity with a critical eye and say “how do I present this for people who have read all my books, and how do I present this for people who have only read this one and RttK?” Because the explanations have to be understandable for people in the second group, without being so over-expository they bore people in the first group. It’s a tightrope act.
From all these decisions, notes blossom and an outline starts to form. At first, this is usually a bullet-pointed list of major events, even if I don’t know the specifics or the connective tissue at this point. Like it might be really important for the protagonist and antagonist to meet in the middle of a party, but I don’t know why they’d both be there yet. My notes at this point have a lot of interjections like “This Happens Because Reasons” or “Make This Make Sense, Please.”
It’s most often at this point that a title suggests itself. If I’m self-publishing, it usually sticks. If I’m going through one of my publishers, I don’t get too attached, because my titles almost always get changed. (For instance, House of Wolves became Glass Predator, and Haunted Palaces became Ghosts of Gotham. The upcoming Charlie McCabe sequel, The Insider, was originally called Everybody’s a Scorpion.) Someday I’m going to submit a manuscript entitled “Book Title Here” but I’m afraid that’ll be the one time they don’t change it. Marketing departments move in mysterious ways.
Now that I have all the big chunks in place, it’s time to expand. I dig into the details figuring out all the connective bits, the twists and turns, noting the clues I have to plant along the way. And it’s at this point that I always have to remember an important thing: nothing in an outline is sacred. Because it’s around this time that I inevitably discover something that I thought was super-important to the story isn’t, at all. That party I thought I had to get my leads to attend? It only existed to prop up a plot point from earlier in the story and that plot point got changed because I chose a different motivation for the antagonist and – see what I mean? A good story flows; change the flow, and everything past that point changes along with it. It’s not uncommon that a scene I thought the entire story would hinge on ends up not appearing in the novel at all.
Once I have a more or less coherent outline, a story with a solid beginning, middle and end, I take another pass. This time I really flesh it out: sentences are expanded to paragraphs, I jot down specific ideas for dialogue, and make notes to myself about the details I need to call out in a scene and the foreshadowing I have to ensure is in place. That’s where I am with the outline for Harmony book six: I wrapped it up yesterday and ended up with a 9000-word outline (which will eventually become a 90,000 word book).
“But Craig,” I hear you hypothetically say, “isn’t that a lot of work?” Yes, but that’s nothing compared to the work it saves. Beyond the speed of knowing exactly what needs to be written and exactly where the story is headed, it helps me spot trouble well in advance. For example, in this outline, Harmony has a device that reacts to other-dimensional energy…and I realized, three quarters of the way in, that it didn’t react to a spoilery thing it very much should have. And it couldn’t react, or it would give the central mystery away. So, huge plot hole. I was able to work out a reasonable solution, layer it into the outline, go back and know where to seed clues to make it fair, and so on. If I had only realized this during the writing process or worse, in final edits? We’re talking hours if not days of extra work to iron things out.
Today’s task is the final pass. I go over each line and ask questions, making sure everyone’s behavior makes sense, that the plot holds up, that I haven’t left any gaping logic holes, and so on. Of course, mistakes always slip through, but it never hurts to have as solid a foundation as possible. And tomorrow morning…well, tomorrow morning I sit down and actually start writing the thing.
And I should get back to doing that. Take care, and I hope you’re having a good Monday!