Can I Start Writing Now?

  Can I Start Writing Now?
Plotting Your Novel

David P. Wagner

Every author has a different way of starting work on a new book. Here’s one.
I’ve always wondered how some authors can just sit down and begin writing without having any idea where their book is going, and especially if they write mysteries. Such writers are called “pantsers” in the literary lexicon since they write by the seat of their pants. Tony Hillerman was a pantser, and did pretty well, so it certainly can be done—just not by me. Instead, I want to have as much of the book planned out as I can before starting to write the first chapter. So, if you’re a pantser, move to another blog entry. But if you are a “plotter” like I am, read on.  Not that you can’t make changes as you write—of course you will, and lots of them. In one of my books, when I was close to the end, I decided to switch the murderer from one character to another. But as a general rule, before I start writing the first word, I have to know who did it, where and how the crime happened, the identities of all the suspects, and how it’s all going to come together. Because I recently turned in the final draft of book number six in my series, I am well into the process right now for starting number seven. So, this is the perfect time to take a break and write about it here.

First things first
The hard part is right off the bat: deciding on a setting and a murder. To get there I create a document in my computer, cleverly named “ideas,” and begin to write down stuff. It’s a stream-of-consciousness kind of writing, putting down quickly what comes into my head, and wiping it out just as quickly when it doesn’t sound right. This takes a while, with a lot of breaks, and throughout I am constantly bouncing ideas off my wife. Usually, the setting comes first. All my books take place in Italy, so I have to decide in which wonderful Italian town my protagonist Rick Montoya will find himself this time, and what kind of work or play brings him there. Then I think about crime and a motive, usually tied in some way to the setting. An idea pops up, I write it down. The next day, I may get rid of it and come up with something else. Somehow, forcing myself to sit at my laptop and write down what comes to mind works for me. I talk to myself as I do it, though not out loud; that would be weird. Once I have a setting and a crime, Rick has to be pulled into the investigation somehow and in a way that makes sense. More pounding away at the keyboard, with lots of deletes when the ideas don’t work. When that hook is made between my protagonist and the murder, and I know exactly why and how the crime took place, I start working on characters.

Characters next
Time for another new document, this one named—you guessed it— “characters.” Since my books are stand-alone, Rick will be meeting most of these people for the first time, though occasionally some face from a previous adventure appears. At this point in the preparation for my next book, I have a wealthy art collector (the victim), his assistant, his wife, an art dealer, a museum curator, and a local cop since Rick is an amateur sleuth and can’t arrest people. Once I started to flesh out characters, I gave them each a name. I find it is easier to envision a person if I know their name, though names can be changed at any time, and often are, thanks to “find and replace.” Once they’re named, I write down what they look like, so I will have an image in my head. Then I invent background, family, personality, life story, and, very importantly, what makes them a possible suspect in the crime. Such details can evolve or even change dramatically once I start writing. One time, a planned nasty personality became a nice guy after just a couple of sentences. But usually, these folks are required to accept what they were given on the “characters” page and be happy they made the cut. As you create your characters, remember that they are the most important aspect of your book. Readers may forget the plot, and even who committed the murder, but good characters will stick in their minds and bring them back for the next book.

Now you write?
Not yet. At this point, it’s time to start thinking about the big picture, so the next document to create will be a synopsis of the plot, since by this time I should have a general idea of what’s going to happen. I already have a number of storylines from my “ideas” document, and as I invented the characters other plot lines came to mind. This synopsis will be a couple of pages at most, and it will force me to think of the story and how it will flow. Pace is very important, you don’t want your reader to get bored and fall asleep. Besides flowing well, it also has to make sense and be believable. Sometimes after reading a synopsis I sit back and have to tell myself, no David, that just doesn’t make it, try again. So, I wipe it off the screen and begin anew. (Throughout each step of this process, in fact, you should not be afraid to do just that.)

All right, now I’ve got the characters and the general plot of the story, it must be time to start writing. Not so fast. The next step is creating scenes. (New document: “scenes.”) Like a movie, a book is a collection of scenes, and they, not chapters, are its real building blocks. One good paragraph is all I need at this point to describe a scene, giving the essence of its action. Every scene must serve one of two purposes: move the storyline along or develop the characters. If it doesn’t do at least one of those things, dump it. Later, after the scene has been written in the actual manuscript, I will go back and give each scene summary more detail and record any changes made during the writing process. In this way, it becomes a reference document, useful when I forget where something was dropped into the story and don’t want to read through the whole manuscript to find it. In general, I create the scene summaries in the order they will appear in the book, but sometimes I jump ahead and do the climactic scenes before those that will fall in the middle. This can be helpful, since knowing how the book finishes assists me in building up suspense and tension before the climax. It also helps me decide what kind of red herrings I can drop along the way. Concocting the scenes will be a piece of cake since you have written a good synopsis and you know your characters. There will be a natural progression from the end of one scene to the start of the next.

Yes, you finally can begin writing—and aren’t you glad you did all that work to prepare? You’re sick and tired of weeks of outlines, plans, and summaries, and dying to write real sentences and dialog. Open up a new document—call it “manuscript”— and begin.

David P. Wagner, a retired foreign service officer, is the author of five Rick Montoya Italian Mysteries. David lived in Italy for nine years, during which time he learned to love things Italian, many of which appear in his books. The latest in the series, A Funeral in Mantova, was published in March by Poisoned Pen Press. To find out more about his books, you can visit his website at