Without a Trace (working title) is my latest work-in-progress – a psychological thriller told from the point of view of three women – indecisive Hazel, buttoned-down Claire and hedonistic Mickie – who head up north one Friday for a long weekend and return the following Monday having buried a man’s body in the woods and sworn an oath of silence about what they did.
How did they come to have a dead body on their hands? Why did they bury it? And how will what they’ve done affect them in the weeks, months and years to come? You’ll have to wait for the novel to be finished to find out, but I’m really looking forward to making a start on it (I’m writing this on the 30th October, but by the time you read this, drafting will already be underway).
A confession: I actually started the first draft several weeks ago, and even gleefully announced the fact on social media. But after a week of rather joyless tapping away at the keys, spending a considerable amount of time at my desk with little perceivable reward, I was forced to admit that I’d begun writing without a sufficiently solid roadmap.
The problem? I was relying on a brief (by my standards) 1,500-word synopsis and an assortment of general ideas and scene fragments, attempting to use these to fashion an 80,000+ word novel. Those of you who know me will know that, in the age-old “plotters vs. pantsers” debate, I am very much at the “plotter” end of the spectrum. I outline obsessively. For me, it’s the most creative part of the whole endeavour, because it’s in the outline that the real meat and potatoes of the writing is done. My outlines are normally long – often the length of a longish novella – but the result is that, by the time I’m done writing one, I have a thorough and hopefully airtight blueprint from which to fashion a first draft. In theory, I know precisely every action committed by every character, and even the general beats of each conversation.
When I hit the pause button on Without a Trace, I’d managed just over 8,500 words in the space of a week, and it had been like getting blood from a stone. Over the following five weeks, I beavered away at transforming my synopsis and notes into something much more idiot-proof, forcing myself to resolve any lingering questions I still had and commit to specific solutions instead of simply assuming I’d figure them out during the drafting (which I’ve always regarded as the novelist’s equivalent of “we’ll fix it in post”). The result, a 40,000-word mini-opus, is certainly the longest outline I’ve ever committed to paper, and one that stands me in good stead to write at least 50,000 words of the first draft over the next four weeks.
Having such a rigid, detailed outline lets me do the actual drafting relatively quickly. The joy of doing the bulk of the creative work before I write a word of the first draft is that I can figure out the cut and thrust of each scene without being too precious about the words I’m choosing, because I know none of them are final. I genuinely admire those who can write a first draft with only a minimal outline (or none at all), but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not a good enough multitasker to be able to figure out the plot and write pretty prose at the same time. I’d rather separate the two into different steps, even if it means ending up writing far more words than I’ll actually use. And hey – it’s worked for me so far.
I look forward to introducing you to Hazel, Claire and Mickie and telling you more about Without a Trace in due course. Until then, I’m going to concentrate on getting the damn thing written so you don’t have to wait any longer than necessary to get a copy of your very own in your hands (or on your Kindle).