I'm happy to report that despite many lengthy delays and unforeseen circumstances (some of which I shared in my previous post), I have finally reached my second milestone: I have crossed the 40,000-word mark of Coffee to Die For, my mystery novel in progress.
For those of you who like numbers, that translates into 170 double-spaced manuscript pages, which places me (roughly) at the 2/3rds point of the first draft. As promised, every time I reach a 20,000-word checkpoint, I'll reflect on the journey so far, and share with you some of the things I've learned along the way. (If you missed my first 20,000-word report, you can read it here.)
I can best sum up my current mental state by quoting the immortal Monty Python's Flying Circus:
My brain hurts.
Like, writing books is hard, and stuff.
I've never been much of an outliner when it comes to writing fiction, believing (no doubt incorrectly) that having a story's route pre-carved in stone could potentially curtail the author's creativity. This belief isn't entirely without merit: on more than one occasion, including during the writing of Coffee to Die For, one of my characters flat-out refused to play a scene in the way I imagined.
As if operating of his own volition, my protagonist, the quirky private investigator Clayton Gyler, simply refused to do what I told him to do. When you read the finished novel, you'll discover that this is perfectly in keeping with his personality, but I never realized that his refusal to play well with others would extend to his creator as well.
The resulting scene is my favorite in the novel: Clayton takes bold, decisive action, with little regard for the potential consequences, transforming a scene that I had intended to be nothing more than a bit of filler into a standout moment. Had I adhered to a pre-written outline, I probably wouldn't have allowed Mr. Gyler to "go rogue." (Please excuse the Palin-ism.) But because I had no outline, I felt free to explore this new direction. If it hadn't worked, I would have backed up a few pages and tried something else.
However, most of my previous fiction writing endeavors have been in the medium of short stories. As such, outlines weren't typically needed. I could hold an entire story inside my head before I ever put pen to paper.
But not so this time--I'm writing a mystery novel now, and I started writing it without knowing any more than the initial set-up. Further complicating matters is the fact that this book is full of deception and subterfuge. I have created a large cast of characters, many of whom have secret relationships with each other, and the convoluted plot has threatened to drag me under on more than one occasion.
Indeed, it got so bad that after I passed page 150 of Coffee to Die For, I had to re-read the entire draft up to that point. I took over a dozen pages of notes, to prevent me from getting lost in a literary labyrinth of my own design. I had to drop some breadcrumbs behind me, in other words, if I hoped to lead my characters out again.
Although not having an outline has allowed me to create a rollicking web of chaos (in a good way), I find myself slightly uneasy now. You see, I am now at the point of the novel where Clayton and his much-put-upon assistant Jennifer are just starting to put all the pieces together. As the author, I know who the villain is. What I don't yet know is how Clayton and Jennifer are going to discover this person's identity.
I'm serious. I truly have no idea. And I'm a little concerned about it.
This is the disadvantage of not outlining, and I already see that the second draft will be devoted to smoothing out the story and ensuring that the mystery is, in fact, solvable--something I would not have to do if I'd outlined the book first. Because I didn't know how I was going to arrive at the solution when I started writing, I peppered the manuscript with red herrings and at least one pointless subplot that has (so far) gone nowhere. If I'm smart, I'll find some way to use this section to bridge my current place in the story with the conclusion I have in my head. If I'm not so smart (which, alas, is all too possible), I'll have to dramatically reshape, if not outright remove, this subplot, which will cost me a great deal of time and wasted effort.
Lesson #1: It's a good idea to outline a novel before you write it.
Consistency of tone is something that I'll need to address in the second draft as well. My original inspiration for the book was the light-hearted The Burglar Who... novels by Lawrence Block, the only living writer at whose feet I would gladly fall and worship. For the first couple of chapters, I think I did a pretty good job of appropriating the playful tone of Mr. Block's celebrated series. From Chapter 3 onwards, however, things got far darker than I ever intended, and suddenly Coffee to Die For began reading like a distilled version of Chinatown. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the book's chapters feel wildly disparate. When I write the second draft, I'll definitely focus on maintaining a light tone throughout, without sacrificing the mystery for comedy.
Lesson #2: If you start out writing a light-hearted novel, make sure it's still a light-hearted novel when you're done.
Overall, though, I'm pretty happy with how the book is coming. Barring any additional unforeseen catastrophes, I expect to finish the next 20,000 words much more rapidly than I completed the previous block. At that point, I'll have a much better idea of where I stand.
Thanks for the support and the interest, everyone! Talk to you soon.