The Agony of the First Draft during NaNoWriMo

If you are taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, it’s very likely the agony of the first draft will hit you. Very few writers can complete a first draft without doubts and even dislike creeping in. But never fear. Suddenly doubting or loathing the story you’re working on isn’t unusual. Just keep these points in mind.

The first draft is supposed to be ugly.

If you write a pristine first draft during NaNoWriMo, that needs no editing whatsoever, well done! You are an extreme rarity in the writing world. For the rest of us, we have to edit. An ugly, really ugly, first draft doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track or that you have no future of a writer. In fact, if you think every first draft is perfect, you probably haven’t studied the craft enough. Understanding that all writing can be improved through rewriting and editing is a sign of maturing in the art.

You can’t fix what doesn’t exist.

Despite its ugliness, the first draft is necessary because you can’t get to the second, third, or umpteenth draft without it. It’s impossible to fix a story that only occupies your imagination. Now I like the editing process. It’s only when I’m into the fourth or fifth draft that I can finally judge whether a scene is working.

Please don’t think I have worked out to perfection how to handle the agony of the first draft. In fact, I’m hoping by writing out this view, I will find the motivation to continue my first draft of my second novel.

I have taken a break for two weeks because I felt like my first draft was going nowhere. In my imagination, I have the plot and clues entirely constructed. But when I actually put words to those imaginings, it reads horribly. I’m doubting whether I can write anything new or interesting. So I need as much reminding as anyone that the first draft can be agony and in the end be polished to diamond-dazzling brilliance.

Do you love writing the first draft? Or do you hate it?

Write a Mystery with Me: the Complete Story

After taking turns collaborating on a mystery this entire month, author M. Liz Boyle and I can now post the finished story. If you’ve never done this kind of writing, you should give it a chance. It really exercises your imagination by forcing it to work with what the other author as plugged into the story. If you don’t like a particular turn in the plot that the other writers have thrown in, see it as a challenge to make it work for you. And now … “Write a Mystery with Me: the Complete Story”. And Happy Halloween!

The chilling fall breeze flung the ends of my hair against my cheek and I brushed them away as I stared at the vacation house across the lake. I hadn’t expected the site of a murder-suicide to look so … cheery. Painted bright yellow with smoke curling from its chimney, it didn’t look any different from the other vacation homes nestled between the shore of the lake and the steep hills blazing with autumn colors.

I shook my head. My imagination had run away with me. After the crime, the house wouldn’t have turned black and had vultures circling it. 

Two people stepped out on the little deck that ran along the front.

I gasped.

Ducking behind a tree, I held up my camera and zoomed in for a clearer look. My heart thumped wildly when I recognized the faces. The coroner and the victim’s father. In this small town, everyone knows everyone, and even the tourists that rent these hunting lodges are as regular and predictable as the sunrise. I stare for a minute longer, but it’s definitely Mel Teak and Mr. Dunham, the dad of Jer Dunham, who everybody knows died here last week with his dad. Except, not, apparently. I flick my camera to ON, but before I can start snapping pictures, the screen alerts me that the battery is dead. Again. It only got cold two weeks ago, so I haven’t adapted to my winter practice of keeping a battery charged and in my pocket. Drat. What next? Call 9-1-1? Follow them myself?

I yanked my phone from my pocket. No reception out here at the lake. And the camera on the phone wouldn’t zoom enough to take a photo. 

An engine caught, and I looked up. A black van, just barely visible through the brilliant yellow leaves, rolled up the drive behind the house

Scrambling up the bank, I raced for my car. If I followed them, I had to drive into an area where I could get reception. I threw open my door, fell in, got the motor started, and tore onto the road.

By the time I roared around the lake, I was so far behind that I almost missed the black van turning right onto a gravel road. I kept my distance as I followed the vehicle through the windy woods.

The van turned into the abandoned factory that had rotted and rusted away for twenty years on the edge of the county.

Slouching down in my seat, I peeked through the steering wheel and watched the van pull into an oversized garage door. Noticing a side door, I left my car in the shade of a big, haunting looking tree and hurried along the perimeter of the property until I could make a discreet beeline to the side door. No window, no answers. Should I open the door? Would it open? Thoughts swirled through my mind as my hand hovered above the rusty doorknob. I gave a quick twist and a fast, smooth tug on the door. I paused and held it open about two inches. When I didn’t hear any explosions or curses, I eased it open far enough to poke my face inside.

The huge building covered an open area with a broken glass roof. Plants, now dying in the cooler fall weather, had sprouted everywhere–in the cracked concrete floor, from crevices in the wall. 

I stood still. 

Someone was calling. From very far away. 

I tiptoed in.

The door at the far end of the enormous room burst open and a man–young man–burst through it. Jer Dunham. 

He pounded into the room. He didn’t look anymore dead than his father.

I stepped under some rusty, wrought-iron steps. This made no sense. The coroner said the bodies they’d pulled from the lake near the home belonged to Mr. Dunham and Jer. And the note found in the house seemed to be a suicide note, written by Mr. Dunham.

I barely dared to breathe as Jer ran closer. He stopped only yards from me, looking every which way.

The person was still calling.

He happened to glance in my direction. Our gazes locked, my blood pressure shooting up.

Then Jer raced over to me.

I spun to the door, but he grabbed my arm. 

“You’ve got to help me,” he said between pants. “My father’s gone crazy.”

His face had a desperate, pleading look, and his hair stuck out like it hadn’t been washed in all these weeks that he’d supposedly been dead. The distant voice called again, with an urgent tone. “Jer, get over here! The plane will be here soon.”

Jer tugged my arm and quickly led me down the wrought-iron steps. He motioned with his free hand for me to keep my steps quiet. We hurried down three flights into a cold, drafty room. A mouse scurried along the far wall, and the hairs on my arms stood up. “What’s going on?” I whispered. Jer flipped off the light switch on the wall. Like most girls from here, I’d once had a crush on Jer, but now I was completely freaked out and could only hope that he wasn’t the one going crazy.

“Quick. There’s a tunnel in the corner. Please. Help me escape!” He said in a hushed tone. 

“Everybody thinks you’re dead. Where are you going?” I shivered in the dark, again hearing the urgent voice upstairs.

Jer gently but quickly pulled my arm, apparently toward the tunnel. He whispered, “The coroner. He set it up. Says flying us out of the country is the only way to live again. New identities, new location. But I don’t want to go. Not like that. People need to know the truth. He’s gonna hurt more people. I have to get out and warn them.” 

My toes bumped into the brick wall and I choked down a scream. Jer released my arm and sayid he’d find the hatch to the tunnel. I listened to noisy footsteps clamoring down the stairs, my heart rate picking up again. “Why’s the coroner faking your death?”

“Cuz he knows that I know about his side job in the drug circle. He needs me dead. And now I think he brainwashed Dad. And just so you know, the coroner knows you’re onto him too. Said he’s seen you and your camera snooping around and you’re next on his list. Heard him with my own ears. Got it!” Next to my shoulder, I felt Jer move and I heard a rusty squeak sound, like an old door creaking open. The steps on the wrought-iron stairs got louder and closer. Faster. Jer says, “It’ll be a long crawl, but we gotta go. It’s the only way.” 

He tugged me toward the sound of the squeaky door and as I ducked down, light filled the room. 

Mr. Dunham’s voice, with the same energy he always announced football games, shouted, “Jer! Who- What’s going on? Doc! You better get down here!”

Jer slammed the door shut and the darkness swallowed us.

“Get on your knees,” he said.

“Wait a minute. You have to lock the door or block it or something or they’ll just come after us.”

“I-I don’t know if it locks from this side.”

Brilliant. We couldn’t die in this hole.

“Stand behind the door.” I flattened against the opposite wall. “Your dad’ll see me first. When he opens it, smash him.”

“You want me to attack my dad?”

“Or you can watch him murder me.” It came out as a scream. “You’re bigger. You have to.”

The rusty door squealed open, and Mr. Dunham stood in the frame, shining his light in my face. “I know you, don’t–“

I grabbed Mr.Dunham’s wrist, and Jer threw his weight against the door, slamming his father between the metal door and the frame. 

As Mr. Dunham sank to the ground, I snatched up his light and listened. 

“Where are you?” a voice called. “Where’s Jer?”

I whispered, “We can go know, but we can’t close the door and risk alerting Dr. Teak.”

“And leave my dad?”

I clenched my teeth. “Then I’m going. Where does this lead?’

“Under the road and into the woods somewhere.”

I stooped into the low tunnel and in a second, Jer followed me.

The crawl wasn’t as long as Jer said or my adrenaline gave me speed. The end of the tunnel was blocked by a mass of bushes that I shoved myself through, the tiny branches tearing at my leggings.

As we clambered to our feet, with no sound of anyone behind us, I said, “Do you know exactly where we are?”

The woods were dark, the sunset only a red trace along the hills.

“I only know we’re across the road from the factory.”

“Then I think I know where we are.” I broke into a run. “We can’t go back to my car. But we can head to the Haunted Hollows. It can’t be far. There’ll be a ton of people since it’s Halloween, and someone should be working security.”

Something crashed into bushes behind us.

We sprinted into the night.

“I’ll get you!” Mr. Dunham shouted behind us. A bang echoed, and I didn’t want to think too much about whether it was a firework from the town festival or a gunshot behind us. Jer and I numbly sprinted and stumbled our way through the woods until we bordered a corn field. The corn maze. Just what I’d hoped we’d find. We were close to help.

“Let’s disappear in the corn,” Jer suggested. It was tempting, but it wouldn’t get the truth out. 

I grabbed his arm and kept running. “No. You said yourself that people need to know the truth.” I gasped for a full breath. “Slow down a little so Dr. Teak can catch up. When he’s close, we’ll run through the back of the amphitheater onto the stage.” Mom’s on the Haunted Hollows planning committee, and if I remembered right, I’d overheard her tell Mrs. Scott that Officer Kip was happy to join Deputy Key as a judge for the pie contest this year. With sunset filling the sky like a spilled paintbox, I knew the pie judging would start any minute now. If we could lead Dr. Teak into the public eye with two cops present, we’d have a good chance of stopping his evil plans.

Next to me Jer mumbled something and picked up speed. I glanced behind us and saw a flashlight beam close. Too close. Something, probably Dr. Teak’s fist, hit my back and knocked me to the ground. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of beating me up out here, so close to help. Jer pulled me up, and with a fresh surge of adrenaline, we ran the last hundred feet to the amphitheater’s backstage clearing, Dr. Teak shouting swear words at us the whole way. Dr. Teak was blinded by anger and followed us right onto stage, right in front of old Mrs. Zeller who, from the glow on her face, won the contest. The spotlight lit Dr. Teak’s face and the crowd gasped. I’d apologize to the pie bakers and Mom later for wrecking the contest. Jer and I grabbed Dr. Teak’s elbows as Officer Kip and Deputy Key, both looking shocked and confused, stepped forward from the judge’s table. “Don’t believe anything that boy tells you!” Dr. Teak yelled. 

Officer Kip reached us first. “Jer Dunham?” he sputtered. “Looks like you have quite a story to tell.”

Jer’s story came out in fits and starts as Dr. Teak tried to outshout us, but the fact that a dead guy was speaking in front of the whole town kept all the costumed ghosts, superheroes, ghouls, and fake celebrities, including the officers, rooted to the ground.

Once back up arrived, Officer Kip said, “Jer, can you show us where he has his drug operation?”

He nodded. “And we need to find my father. He was chasing us at one point.”

Officer Kip said, “Maggie, go to the station to fill out a report of what you witnessed.”

“Can I get my car first?”I said as Mom put an arm around my shoulders.

“One of us will drive it back if you give us the keys.”

I dug them out of my pocket. As the officers escorted Dr. Teak, whose protests of innocence were verging on hysterical, Jer turned to me. “Thank you. That sounds so lame.”

I said, “Not when it’s sincere.”

Mom said, “We’ll wait for your at the station. You can stay with us.”

The right side of Jer’s mouth cracked in a brief smile. Then he walked with Officer Kip past still gawking witches and Star Wars characters as the orange fairy lights strung across through the trees cast their Halloween light.

If you’d like to read more collaborative fiction, click here.

Find Settings that Help Your Mystery

Many articles and books describe how to create characters and plots for mysteries. But settings are just as important. If you’re writing in this genre, you need to find settings that help your mystery.

Settings to Meet People

In a mystery, the detective meets people, observes them, questions them. The plot can’t move forward without the detective performing these activities. In a novel where the detective is part of law enforcement, the author has an easy time getting his detective to the characters he needs to meet. In a cozy mystery with an amateur detective, the author has to invent opportunities.

My teen detective Rae Riley works in a library in a rural county in Ohio. As a check-out clerk, she can meet anyone I want to push through the front doors of the library. Rae works mostly at the main branch in the county seat, so she’s in the biggest town in the county, where locals would have any number of reasons to visit.

In a rural community, holiday and civic events provide Rae a chance to meet people. These events also allow me to make people who are unlikely to bump into each other otherwise to rub shoulders with one another.

Of course, Rae can meet just about anyone online, but if that person is going to be a significant character, he or she will have to make a physical appearance. A soley online presence limits character development. But to get the characters to meet, I’m faced with obstacles of how to plausibly introduce this character into Rae’s physical world. If Rae’s supposed to be smart, she wouldn’t just tell the person online where she lives.

Settings that Add Suspense

Isolating the detective is the best way to create suspense in a mystery, but these day, when it seems like help is just a phone call away, mystery writers have to work harder to create suspenseful scenes. And a writer can only use the phone battery dying so often. Finding settings that isolate the detective in a plausible way is crucial to adding suspense.

I have the advantage of using a rural county as my main setting. I’ve lived and traveled in enough rural locations to know that reception can disappear at any time. That’s perfect if I want to throw my detective into a dangerous situation in which he can only count on his wits.

Othering settings that add suspense are ones with a time element. The detective is trapped in a car that’s slowly sinking into a lake. Or she is being chased through a deserted part of an unfamiliar city, so that when she calls 911, she can’t tell them exactly where she is.

Any setting that’s been abandoned automatically adds an ominous mood to a story, whether it’s a quarry, a hospital, a school, or a farm.

Also any setting that is unfamiliar to your detective can add suspense. Hoping to find her missing sister, a woman who has lived her whole life in L.A. follows clues to a remote town in the Appalachian mountains. Or hoping to find her missing sister, a woman who has lived her whole life in the Appalachian mountains follows clues to L.A.

For more posts on writing mysteries, click here.

Which authors have found settings that help their mysteries?

Write a Mystery with Me Part 4

If you’ve ever wanted to write a mystery, here’s your chance. Put on your deerstalker and use today’s photo prompt to write a mystery with me part 4. Read the latest additions below and then add your inspiration in the comments. To read last week’s installment, click here. Now I’m adding the next part of the story. Anyone can contribute. By the end of the month, we’ll have a mystery!

His face had a desperate, pleading look, and his hair stuck out like it hadn’t been washed in all these weeks that he’d supposedly been dead. The distant voice called again, with an urgent tone. “Jer, get over here! The plane will be here soon.”

Jer tugged my arm and quickly led me down the wrought-iron steps. He motioned with his free hand for me to keep my steps quiet. We hurried down three flights into a cold, drafty room. A mouse scurried along the far wall, and the hairs on my arms stood up. “What’s going on?” I whispered. Jer flipped off the light switch on the wall. Like most girls from here, I’d once had a crush on Jer, but now I was completely freaked out and could only hope that he wasn’t the one going crazy.

“Quick. There’s a tunnel in the corner. Please. Help me escape!” He said in a hushed tone. 

“Everybody thinks you’re dead. Where are you going?” I shivered in the dark, again hearing the urgent voice upstairs.

Jer gently but quickly pulled my arm, apparently toward the tunnel. He whispered, “The coroner. He set it up. Says flying us out of the country is the only way to live again. New identities, new location. But I don’t want to go. Not like that. People need to know the truth. He’s gonna hurt more people. I have to get out and warn them.” 

My toes bumped into the brick wall and I choked down a scream. Jer released my arm and sayid he’d find the hatch to the tunnel. I listened to noisy footsteps clamoring down the stairs, my heart rate picking up again. “Why’s the coroner faking your death?”

“Cuz he knows that I know about his side job in the drug circle. He needs me dead. And now I think he brainwashed Dad. And just so you know, the coroner knows you’re onto him too. Said he’s seen you and your camera snooping around and you’re next on his list. Heard him with my own ears. Got it!” Next to my shoulder, I felt Jer move and I heard a rusty squeak sound, like an old door creaking open. The steps on the wrought-iron stairs got louder and closer. Faster. Jer says, “It’ll be a long crawl, but we gotta go. It’s the only way.” 

He tugged me toward the sound of the squeaky door and as I ducked down, light filled the room. 

Mr. Dunham’s voice, with the same energy he always announced football games, shouted, “Jer! Who- What’s going on? Doc! You better get down here!”

Jer slammed the door shut and the darkness swallowed us.

“Get on your knees,” he said.

“Wait a minute. You have to lock the door or block it or something or they’ll just come after us.”

“I-I don’t know if it locks from this side.”

Brilliant. We couldn’t die in this hole.

“Stand behind the door.” I flattened against the opposite wall. “Your dad’ll see me first. When he opens it, smash him.”

“You want me to attack my dad?”

“Or you can watch him murder me.” It came out as a scream. “You’re bigger. You have to.”

The rusty door squealed open, and Mr. Dunham stood in the frame, shining his light in my face. “I know you, don’t–“

I grabbed Mr.Dunham’s wrist, and Jer threw his weight against the door, slamming his father between the metal door and the frame.

As Mr. Dunham sank to the ground, I snatched up his light and listened.

“Where are you?” a voice called. “Where’s Jer?”

I whispered, “We can go know, but we can’t close the door and risk alerting Dr. Teak.”

“And leave my dad?”

I clenched my teeth. “Then I’m going. Where does this lead?’

“Under the road and into the woods somewhere.”

I stooped into the low tunnel and in a second, Jer followed me.

The crawl wasn’t as long as Jer said or my adrenaline gave me speed. The end of the tunnel was blocked by a mass of bushes that I shoved myself through, the tiny branches tearing at my leggings.

As we clambered to our feet, with no sound of anyone behind us, I said, “Do you know exactly where we are?”

The woods were dark, the sunset only a red trace along the hills.

“I only know we’re across the road from the factory.”

“Then I think I know where we are.” I broke into a run. “We can’t go back to my car. But we can head to the Haunted Hollows. It can’t be far. There’ll be a ton of people since it’s Halloween, and someone should be working security.”

Something crashed into bushes behind us.

We sprinted into the night.

Working Out the Logistics in a Mystery

Having been inspired by V.L. Adams’ guest post, “Start with the End: Leaving Clues in a Mystery“, I decided to write a post on working out the logistics in a mystery. As I tackled the next novel in my Rae Riley series, I hit upon a way to keep the action straight.

Get a Calendar

Preferably an old calendar. I’m using my calendar for this year but in months that have already passed. My novels are set during definite seasons of the year. A Shadow on the Snow starts in late January and ends on Good Friday. My current work-in-progress A Storm in Summer opens on Memorial Day and covers roughly two weeks with a wrap-up on Father’s Day.

On a day that action takes place, I draw a line down the middle of it. On the left side, I write action that will appear in the book. Since I write in first person, this is also what my main character is doing. On the right side, I write what other characters are up to during that same day. Their actions may or may not appear in the book. Keeping track of where all the characters are at certain points of the day prevents holes from appearing in my plot and makes it easier to fix holes when they do show up.

For example, let’s say I need my teen detective Rae Riley to see a certain car. The most plausible way for her to see it is town where she works. So I write a scene where she goes to work at the library and has lunch with a friend and spots the car

But how did the car get there? On the right, I write what the other characters have done so Rae can see the convertible in town. Those reasons may not have to appear in the book for readers to make sense of the mystery, but it helps me understand my plot and the motivation of my characters.

You can break this technique down to hours or even minutes if you’re plotting requires it.

Let’s say you’re writing a mystery in which someone had to have been murdered between 11 and 11:30 p.m. Select your day and then the times to schedule what the detective, victim, guilty part and suspects were doing.

Plotter or Pantser

This method works for a plotter or a pantser. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, a plotter is someone who maps out her entire book, writes from an outline, and doesn’t deviate from it much. A pantser usually has a rough idea of characters, settings, and plot but explores all those aspects as he writes. While my calendar plotting obviously appeals to a plotter, it can also help a pantser when she needs to smooth out rough spots and fill in the holes in her story.

If you write crime fiction, what method do you use for working out the logistics in a mystery? I’d love to learn about it!

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑