Sunday, December 20, 2009

1959 Fatal Crash Leads to Novel

On the night of December 20, 1959 – fifty years ago today -- I was sitting in the left front seat of the Vista-Dome car of the Burlington Zephyr passenger train as it hurtled through northern Illinois on its way from Chicago toward my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The engineer would later tell a coroner’s jury that he was going 90 miles an hour (legal at the time) as we rounded a gentle curve at the tiny town of Chadwick.

From my vantage point in the darkened dome car near the front of the train, I could see the locomotive’s searchlight slice through the darkness, sweeping the tracks that stretched ahead of us. Suddenly, off to my left, I saw a car speeding toward a crossing we were approaching. The car looked like a 1949 Chevy, distinctive because of its sloped rear end. A split second later, I lost sight of the car as it went in front of the train.

I heard a bang, the train shuddered, and debris rained onto the Plexiglas dome, cracking the window I’d been peering through. I ducked, then scrambled down the narrow stairway to the dome car’s lower level where I told my dad and the conductor what I’d just witnessed.

I was nine years old.

Eventually, the train came to a stop at least a mile down the tracks. My dad got off to investigate, but I didn’t want to see the carnage, so I stayed behind, shivering in a frigid vestibule and looking out the open door as Dad made his way to the front of the train.

An ambulance silently passed by, red lights flashing, a shrouded figure stretched out in back. I would meet the ambulance driver, Bob Helms, years later at a book signing in Chadwick. Tears welled in his eyes as he told me about that night in 1959 when he helped retrieve the mangled bodies of the three people whose lives ended so suddenly and brutally.

The crash killed Eugene Kutzke, 22; his wife Ellen, 17; and her brother, Raymond Stage, 11 – all of Freeport, Illinois. Earlier in the day, they’d been in Dubuque, Iowa and were returning to Freeport in a borrowed car.

I remember being particularly troubled that a boy about my age was among the victims.

The coroner’s jury ruled the crash an accident. The car came from the West and made a sharp left turn just before the grade crossing. Several buildings on the right side of the car would have obscured the driver’s view of the tracks, which crossed the road at a slightly oblique angle. The speeding train was coming from the right. Even if the driver saw the train – which I doubt -- he wouldn’t have had time to react.

After my dad returned from his foray to the front of the train, we went to the club car and sat with several other people who listened as we recounted our stories. A woman told me she lived nearby and would send me a newspaper clipping with details of the crash. Thirty-five years later, it still hadn’t arrived.

Fast forward to about 1994. I was doing a writing exercise recounting a personal experience – the one you’ve just read. As I wrote, I remembered a radio news report about a car-train collision in which an infant survived. I began wondering what if an infant had survived the crash I’d witnessed and grew up wondering about her past. That idea turned into my mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.”

The novel isn’t about the accident. If anything, it’s an example of how a personal experience can be the seed of an idea that can blossom into something else – something redeeming.

The book begins with my 25-year-old heroine vexed because she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She discovers the body of the aunt who raised her from infancy – a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. (This is an echo of my sister’s suicide in 1980 – but that’s another story for another time.) That trauma begins a quest to unlock secrets kept hidden for a quarter century when her parents died in a mysterious car-train collision.

The manuscript went through 14 major revisions over 10 years before I found my current agent, Barbara Casey, (the 39th agent I queried). During that process, I drew on other personal experiences to add texture to a story that includes politics, journalism, and mentoring relationships.

But it all started 50 years ago today in Chadwick, Illinois. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I named my heroine Lark Chadwick.


John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

So, You Have to Give a Speech?

Some suggestions on how to gain confidence in front of a crowd:

1. It's NOT about YOU, it's about THEM. In other words, they came to hear about your book. You know more about it than they do, so put yourself in their head and try to speak to their need. (In this case, their need is to know more about you.)

2. Whether it's a large crowd, or only a few people, make your talk personal. Talk to them as if you're talking to just one person. It can either be a person who seems to be looking at you attentively, or it can be a friend who's not there, but is in your mind's eye.

3. Just be you. No need to be pretentious. Have an idea of what you want to say, but don't read them a speech. Instead, speak from your heart and in your own words. Think of it as a conversation.

4. It's a two-way street. Once you've said what you wanted to say, then take questions. That way, you'll know what THEY (remember, it's about THEM, not you) are interested in. Keep your answers short and then ask, "did that help?" That gives the person a chance to ask a follow-up to seek better clarification.

5. You might consider checking to see if there's a Toastmaster's club in your area. It's a great way to get experience as a public speaker, and get helpful feedback on your speaking style.

I'll stop there. I could probably go on. Bottom line: once you realize you actually have something to say, then you can relax and just say it and not worry about what people think about you because you can't control that. All YOU can control is your message and your delivery. You're just talking with someone. You do it every day. Only this time, a few extra people will be eavesdropping.

Final thought: HAVE FUN WITH IT.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Son Remembers His WWII Dad

When I was nine or ten years old, my father took me to a college basketball game. As the clock ran out, a trumpeter in the pep band thought it would be cute to mark the demise of the rival team by playing Taps.

Dad was not amused.

“Shut up!” he roared.

The trumpeter played on, oblivious.

Dad got to his feet, fists clenched.

“I said, ‘Shut up!’” he bellowed even louder.

Embarrassed, I cringed in my seat. I’d never seen Dad this upset. But most people in the noisy auditorium were unaware of my father’s wrath. His anger was drowned out by cheers, and by amused laughter at the cleverness of the Taps-playing trumpeter.

Later, Dad explained to me that his strong emotions went back nearly 15 years when he was an officer on Gen. William Woodward’s staff during the 104th Infantry Division's assault on Nazi Germany. Under the leadership of Major General Terry Allen, the "Timberwolves" fought through Holland, Belgium, and into Germany, seeing unbelievable carnage.

Some men had become numb to it.

Dad told me about seeing a couple soldiers carelessly tossing dead bodies into the back of a truck to be hauled away from the battlefield. As Dad watched, a passing officer angrily chewed out the men:

“These are soldiers of the United States Army,” the officer yelled, “and they will be treated with respect!

Whenever Dad told that story, his voice would catch.

Fast forward. Spring, 1995 – fifty years after the Nazis surrendered, and some 35 years after Dad’s anger boiled over at that basketball game. His emotions were still raw as we sat together on the back porch of my home in suburban Atlanta.

Over the course of three days, I held a small Radio Shack tape recorder between us as he talked about his life. Not surprisingly, his days in combat with the 104th took up most of the eight hours I captured on tape.

Dad was a shy man, placid, slow to anger; rarely did he show much emotion of any kind, except laughter – he loved to laugh. So, it was unexpected when, during a taping session, he suddenly broke down and wept.

He’d been describing the day he came across a group of Timberwolf infantrymen who’d been caught in a crossfire and slaughtered.

“If it hadn’t been for those guys in the infantry,” Dad said, swiping at his tears, “I never would have survived the war.”

Dad died in 1996. I went in his place to the 56th Timberwolf reunion in Atlanta Aug. 28 to Sept.3, 2001. There I had a chance to relay his appreciation of the infantry to several of the Timberwolf veterans I met: George Bacon, Emmett Burke, Jess Carpenter, Robert Clark, Warren Colglazier, Art Decker, Mel Falck, Albert Fontana, Walter George, Vern Gilbert, Warren Jershky, John Rison Jones, Jr., Dick Karst, Matthew Kiley, Earl Lutz, Art Mason, Dick Matthews, John Montgomery, Navy Myers, Herbert Orton, Ernest Peters, Warren Pugh, Paul Radlinsky, Floyd Shockley, Art Sorenson, Charles Todd, Robert Tresnak, Phil Tretola, and Keith Zimmerman.

And I listened as many of them talked about sphincter-tightening experiences. The memories were old, but the tears were fresh.

One told me, “Think of the worst you could go through -- then double it.”

Another said he wrote down his story, but hid the manuscript in a safe deposit box for his children to read after his death.

“It’s too awful to talk about,” he explained, “plus none of them seem very interested in what I did during the war.”

One infantryman recounted the shock and horror of finding the bodies of some of his closest foxhole buddies “dead in the street.”

“I just shut down completely,” he said. “My emotions turned to ice. Suddenly, I had no one I could talk to.”

“Could you pray?” I asked.

“I could until [the] Nordhausen [concentration camp],” he replied. (On April 11, 1945, the 104th liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany. The bodies of 5,000 starved prisoners were stacked like cord wood and the few hundred survivors were like walking skeletons.) He told me it took years, and the help of several understanding people, to restore in him a semblance of faith.

“How did the war change you?” I asked several of the men I met.

“It made me mean,” one man confessed.

Some said it took years, and the patience of long-suffering spouses, before they were able to overcome their anger -- anger they didn’t even know they had until others pointed it out to them.

During my time with these men, I tried to resist my journalistic instinct to probe. Mostly, I listened. It was a rich experience. An experience, I fear, will be lost forever if more of us don’t encourage these men to tell their stories for history.

I’m glad I went to the Timberwolf reunion. For awhile, at least, it was like being with my dad again, talking about the days when he was young and freedom was at risk.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor at CNN in Washington, D.C. His father,
N. George DeDakis, remained in the Army Reserves after WWII, retiring as a Colonel in 1960. He practiced law in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and died May 29, 1996 at the age of 88. His son was with him at the end.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Overcoming the Fear of Rejection

I got an email recently from a young woman who told me she’s written a novel, but hasn’t shown it to anyone else because she’s afraid of having to deal with rejection.

Her instincts are correct -- she will experience rejection. And it’ll hurt. But it will also make the elation that comes with acceptance all the sweeter.

So, this is for all of you who have a book inside you somewhere. Maybe it’s just the nub of an idea that won’t go away; maybe all or part of it sits mouldering and neglected on your computer’s hard drive. But whatever the case, the fact that you’ve even thought about writing for publication should be a signal to pay attention to that inner nudge.

If the fear of rejection is holding you back, here are some suggestions on how to overcome it:

Expect to be Rejected: This, of course, is why you’re not letting anyone see your writing. But if you expect rejection, then you won’t be surprised when it happens. Every published author can tell you horror stories about having been rejected. In my case, 38 agents rejected the manuscript for “Fast Track,” my first novel, before I found Barbara Casey, my current agent – and she rejected the manuscript for “Bluff,” my second novel, twice before she deemed it publisher-ready. You know this instinctively and from experience: Rejection is part of life.

Identify What You’re Afraid of: Chances are you have in your mind a terrifying scenario in which someone will read your stuff and then dump on you mercilessly. Either they’ll puke and run away or they’ll be insulting. But let’s be realistic: How often has that ever happened to you? It’s more likely that you’ll experience polite indifference, which still hurts, but when you consider the range of possibilities, actual rejection could be much worse than it probably will be.

Cultivate Courage: It’s okay to be afraid. It’s a natural emotion we all experience. The question is what are you going to do with the fear? I’m always inspired by the guys who stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Were they afraid? Of course, but they went forward anyway. Going forward is what differentiates cowardice from courage. Cowardice is letting fear paralyze you into inaction, but courage is fear in action. So, recognize your fear, embrace it, then move forward anyway. It produces confidence.

Learn From Rejection: Submitting your writing to someone else probably feels as daunting as facing enemy gunfire, but the good news is no one will be shooting bullets at you. Instead, if you’re lucky, you’ll get feedback that’s invaluable. Why invaluable? Because your goal as a writer is to connect with someone. Critical feedback is what you need in order to connect more effectively.

It’s Not About You: When you’re afraid of rejection, the focus is, understandably, on you. You have to start with yourself, but the goal is to get beyond this. Here’s why: Think of your writing as a gift that you’re giving to someone else. But tastes vary and your writing won’t resonate with everyone. People have the freedom to accept or reject your offering. Fine. The payoff comes when you realize that what you’ve written has touched someone else. That makes all the rejection worth it.

Here’s the saddest thing about rejection: If you give in to the paralyzing fear of being rejected, you will have succeeded in one major way – you will have succeeded in rejecting yourself.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.” Visit his Web site at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beating Writer's Block - Some Suggestions

You know the feeling:

You’re on a deadline. You don’t have much time to craft the perfect story.

You sit and stare at a blank computer screen while it stares back at the blank expression on your face. With each tic of the clock, your blood pressure ratchets up a notch. Panic grasps you by the throat.

Ever been there? Of course you have.

During my 21 years at CNN, I’ve worked with some of the best writers in television news. I marvel at how they repeatedly – and rapidly – transform blank screens into solid, readable copy. Yet every now and then, someone gets stuck and needs a little help.

Whether your challenge is to write a news story, a novel, a term paper or an e-mail, here are some suggestions on how to beat writer’s block:

1. RELAX! - Nothing paralyzes more than trying to be perfect. The writers I know always aspire to do their best and that means nothing less than perfect. But it’s an elusive goal, so, rule number one: Relax. Take the pressure off yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect – at least not the first time.

2. What Are You Trying to Say? - When a writer comes to me with that familiar blank stare, it’s usually accompanied by the statement, “I’m having trouble getting started.” It’s at times like these that I simply ask, “What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, when detached from the keyboard, the writer usually has no trouble telling me in his or her own words what the story is about. “Okay,” I’ll respond, “now go and write that.” Once the mental logjam is broken, the words flow through their fingers.

3. Listen to Your Head – Ah….but exactly what words? And in what order? The answers are already in your head. Listen to that voice inside you. Or, if you’re one of those whose head has many voices clamoring for attention, zero in on the voice you hear the clearest, then write down what it’s saying. Once you’ve written the first sentence, the others will follow logically as the momentum builds.

4. Take a Hike – Bob Slosser and Ken Gilliam are two of the best writers I ever worked with (may they rest in peace). Ken was a CNN writer who loved to craft the perfect sentence. He agonized as he searched for just the right words to turn an original phrase. He told me what worked best for him was first to think about the story. That was usually best done while taking a walk to the break room, the coffee urn, or the bathroom. When he returned to his computer, he’d make the keys clatter a bit, then he’d take another hike while his copy simmered. Finally, he’d return to take a fresh look at what he’d written, then buff, polish, tweak and revise before he was satisfied – or the clock ran out. Bob Slosser, a former New York Times editor and author of several nonfiction books, had an approach to writer’s block that was similar to Ken’s. Bob was a pacer. He once told me he wore out the carpet in his den as he walked back and forth in his quest to find the right words. Bob said each of his books “went through the typewriter” 25 times. That’s a lot of pacing. But you see, ruminating is simply another way of writing.

5. Write something. ANYthing! – Ruminating, thinking, and pacing are fine, but there comes a time when you must take action. So, just do it. You can always loop back and make it better.

These are just a few suggestions. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. What works for you? Pass it along. I’m sure we could all benefit from it.

My thanks to those of you who tell me you appreciate these little notes on writing. Is there a topic you’d like me to tackle? Let me know. Also….if you have a manuscript that needs the touch of a professional editor, put my experience to work for you.


John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.” Visit his Web site at

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What Does a Manuscript Editor Do (And Not Do)?

Ever since my first novel, “Fast Track,” was published in 2005, I’ve come across people who are trying to write books. Often, they pay me to take a critical look at their manuscript.

Here are five things a professional manuscript editor does (and doesn’t) do:

1. Treats Your Manuscript (and you) with Respect: Even if your manuscript is fiction, you’ve put a lot of yourself into it. A LOT. No doubt you’ve agonized over word choice and sentence structure – and perhaps even despaired at your overall ability as a writer. A good manuscript editor understands this and approaches your work with the realization that behind the words may lie a fragile psyche.
2. Gives You Feedback that is Honest: Yes, yes, we all want to be told that what we’ve written is Pulitzer-worthy, but a good editor will tell you the truth. However, giving honest feedback doesn’t mean being nasty or snarky. My approach is to react to your manuscript as a reader. Do I want to turn pages -- or turn off the light? You need to know.
3. Tells You What’s Working – and What Isn’t: Can I see in my mind’s eye the scene you’ve written? Are your characters real to me? Is the story believable? I’ll let you know.
4. Is Nitpicky: Spelling? Punctuation? Even the most conscientious writer misses the little things. It’s the editor’s job to catch them.
5. Asks Questions and Makes Suggestions: It’s almost – but not quite – a collaborative relationship between writer and editor. The people who have been most helpful to me are the ones who ask me probing questions about my manuscripts. Those questions spark my creativity and nudge me toward finding answers. Sometimes they suggest ideas I hadn’t considered. I’m under no obligation to implement them, but I find that thinking about them often leads me in a new and exciting direction – and makes the finished product better.

Do you have a manuscript that needs an objective pair of eyes? Let me know -- I’d love to be of service.

Contact me at johede[at]

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Confessions of a Cross-gender Writer

I'm a guy, but I write in the first person as a woman.

When my mystery/suspense novel "Fast Track" was first published in hardcover in 2005, one of my male friends said in astonishment to one of our mutual female friends, "I didn't know John was a closet woman!"

Here's how I inscribed his book: "Welcome to my closet."

My CNN colleague and cone-of-silence friend Carol Costello once told me after reading an early draft of the manuscript, "You have a very well-developed female side." I suppose some guys might be freaked to be told that, but Carol meant it as a compliment, so I accept it even though I'm still not totally sure what she means.

Writing as a woman started when I first began toying with fiction at least 15 years ago. Someone suggested that I choose a point of view that would be different for me and a challenge.

It was only later that I realized that most people who buy books are women. Cool.

I found that writing from the female perspective hasn't been as tough as I thought it would be, for a number of reasons:

  •  I had a great relationship with my mom (a third grade school teacher, incidently) -- I could talk with her about anything
  •  Cindy, my wife of 31 years, is one of those quality people who have a lot of substantive things to say. She's smart, compassionate, generous, funny, articulate, and never boring
  •  My 28-year-old writer/daughter Emily is never shy about offering an entertainingly-expressed opinion on just about everything (minus the "just about" part)
  • I work at a news organization heavily populated with twenty-something young women who tell me stuff because I'm much more comfortable asking questions and listening than pontificating.
I asked a lot of women to read "Fast Track" before I found my agent -- also a woman (Barbara Casey) -- and their feedback helped me make tweaks that rendered the text authentic to the female psyche. For example, I had a line of dialogue in which Lark Chadwick, my protagonist, says, "I'll just jump into the shower." The women of the Princeton Lakes Book Club in Marietta, Georgia, who let me sit in and listen as they critiqued the manuscript, said, as one: "Women do NOT just 'jump' into the shower. We savor the sensuality of the experience."

Got it. Lark no longer jumps into the shower.

After "Fast Track" came out, Kris Kosach of ABC Radio wrote, "DeDakis crawls inside the mind of a twenty-something female, authentically capturing her character, curiosity and self-expression in this can't-put-down thriller." Nice. Thanks, Kris.

I continue to be amazed at the numerous 5-star reviews I get on Amazon from women who don't seem to mind that a man is writing as a woman. See for yourself:

Yes, there is probably still plenty of prejudice out there among people who don't believe it's possible for a writer to be able to bridge the gender gap, but I've found that emotions are universal. Women, as well as men, experience fear, joy, anger, and sadness. No one gender corners the market on having feelings -- it's just that I've found women tend to express their feelings more interestingly and articulately.

So, I'm proud to be a woman -- if only on the printed page.

John DeDakis
CNN Senior Copy Editor
("The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer")

(hardcover: ISBN 1-59507-094-X)
(paperback: ISBN 1-59507-102-4)

web site:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5 Ways to Stay Organized While Writing a Novel

Some lessons I'm learning along the writing path:

1. Create a Master Plan Document: This is a living, breathing, evolving document. It contains a Daily Writing Log, plus my plot outline, key pivot points, and a brief summary of each chapter.

2. Keep a Daily Writing Log: For the sake of simplicity, I put it at the top of the Master Plan. The log documents each writing session by date and time. Nothing elaborate here, just a few quick notes of what I hope to accomplish and how my thinking/writing is evolving. It's a narrative history of how the book is being created. I can easily find my place because in all caps and in big, bold, bright red lettering I put the words, THIS IS WHERE I AM NOW. I just scroll down until I see red (so to speak) and then add the next entry.

3. Keep Track of Changes: As the story unfolds, the chapters in my Master Plan change, but rather than obliterating the old, I merely add the new information along with the date I made the change. By doing this, I'm creating and preserving the history of how the story evolved.

4. Create a New Folder for Each Draft: "Fast Track," my first novel, had 14 Draft Folders. My new book, "Bluff," to be released later this year, contains 8 Draft Folders. For my current novel - still untitled - I'm only on Draft #1.

5. Give Each Chapter a Name: Each Draft Folder contains the individual chapters - a separate file for each chapter. Numbering them keeps them in their proper order (1.1, 2.1 etc. For the second draft, the numbering sequence is 1.2, 2.2 etc.) But just as important as numbering, is giving your chapters titles. I don't mean a title that will ever see the light of day in your book - it's merely a memory prod so you know at a glance what's contained in the chapter. This way, you don't have to keep opening files later to find what you're looking for. (NOTE: Chapter numbers and titles may change from draft to draft because you'll probably be making lots of alterations, including reordering the sequence of things and breaking big chapters into several smaller ones.)

Final Thoughts:

I find that it's more efficient to write the novel straight through rather than continuing to loop back to make each sentence perfect. Why? Because it gives me a sense of accomplishment -- a realization that I can actually do it. It's purely psychological, the thinking being, "if I've already 'finished' the book, then the rest of my time is spent merely tweaking it."

Knowing up front that the first draft will suck takes the pressure off. The first draft serves mainly as exploration. As I write my third novel, I'm discovering that while my Master Outline has given me the story's scaffolding - the big picture - by writing individual chapters I'm, in effect, zooming in for a close-up in which new, and often unexpected, characters sashay on stage.

Some of the chapters consist almost entirely of dialogue - almost no tags, no action, no description. That will come in subsequent drafts. For now, I'm just writing as fast as I can what I see in my head.

My way of staying organized is certainly NOT the only way, so I think we'd all benefit to hear what works (and doesn't work) for you.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Writing for the Ear; Writing for the Eye

Recently, I spoke to the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) in Denver. They bombarded me with great questions about the creative process, but one question stands out: What are the differences and similarities between writing for television and writing a novel?

As many of you know, my day job is a copy editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." And I've been a broadcast journalist for 40 years. (I hear those wisecracks about old age. Stop it!!) About 15 years ago, I added fiction to my writing repertoire. (I hear you media-basher cynics and your snarky remarks about fiction and journalism. You stop it, too!!)

Anyway..... the woman's question got me thinking that there are really more similarities than differences between writing for the ear (broadcast copy) and writing for the eye (print).

Broadcast copy has to be simple and lean because the listener only gets one chance to hear and understand. Unless you have TiVo, you can't tap on the TV screen and tell the anchor, "What did you say? I missed what you said. Could you repeat it, please?" The copy has to be clearly understandable the first time.

Print copy, obviously, can contain more nuance, details, and complexity. But the more I think about it, I see that a lot of my fiction writing closely parallels the broadcast style. For example, I'm writing the first draft of my third novel now. I'm finding that for most scenes, I write the dialogue first -- no action, no description, just two people talking -- a staccato, back-and-forth hot potato of word play. It's just like writing broadcast copy for an anchor because the anchor's copy is meant to be conversational, the way real people talk to each other.

It's only after I lay down my dialogue bed that I loop back and add action, description, and narrative. Yet even then, I apply the same principles that I've used over the years in broadcasting: keep it simple and keep it tight.

Some literary authors are great at writing lush, emotive descriptions. I wish I could do that, but I know my limitations. And I think I know that many readers these days don't want to get bogged down by convoluted sentences.

So.....perhaps novel writing isn't as different from broadcast writing as one might think. Your thoughts?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Plan a Little; Write a Little

Writing a novel is a little like journaling. At least it is for me because my novels are written in the first person -- and so are my journal entries.

For the past few weeks, I've been plotting book three in my Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series. I know what I want to happen at all the main pivot points and I know how it will end; I've given a lot of thought to the sequence of events and the characters; I've met the killer, the red herrings, and the love interest(s).

But there's so much about the story I still don't know. Again, it's just like journaling: I have desires and plans for the future, but life can only be lived one day at a time.

Yesterday, I couldn't wait any longer for all the details of the novel to take shape in my mind -- I felt compelled to begin the first draft. I've written two chapters so far. To be honest, they suck. But that's okay. I can loop back and touch things up later. Right now, I NEED to get something concrete written down.

The interesting thing I've discovered is that the act of writing helped crystallize my thinking -- just like when I tackle a vexing problem in my journal. The idea for how to end each chapter came to my conscious mind mere seconds before I wrote it, just as the answer to a vexing problem in life sometimes comes to me during the act of writing down the details.

Perhaps this happens because when we merely ruminate on things, our minds flit willy-nilly, but the act of writing takes all those amorphous thoughts and laser-focuses them to the tip of the ballpoint as it glides across the paper or the tips of our fingers as they tap (or, in my case, pound) the keyboard keys. Writing forces the mind to slow down and zoom in for a close-up. Writing allows thoughts that had been lurking just below the surface of our consciousness to materialize.

So, maybe writing is like living: Plan a little; write a little -- plan a little; LIVE a little. Maybe. We shall see.

Your thoughts?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Building a Novel

I’ve begun writing my third novel. Actually, to be more accurate, I’ve begun sketching it. The writing comes later.

I wish I could sit down and simply write it straight through, letting it come together in flashes of insight and creativity as I type. Nuh uh. That’s not how it works – at least not for me.

When I constructed “Fast Track,” my first novel, I used a blueprint set forth in “The Weekend Novelist” written by Robert Ray. For my second novel, “Bluff,” due to be published later this year, I used as a guide Ray’s “The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery.” Both of Robert Ray’s books are practical and helpful and I highly recommend them. (You can find them easily on Amazon.)

For Book Three (still untitled), I’m trying to come up with my own plan. Here’s where things stand right now in the creative process:

It began several years ago when I first got the idea. It started with just one character and his situation. (Not gonna go into detail about the substance – this entry is about process). For years, the idea merely banged around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until about a month ago that I began to write down my thoughts in a document I cleverly titled “Initial Thoughts.”

In my “initial thoughts” document, I just started typing up my thinking about the story in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way. I guess you could call it thinking out loud with your fingers. That document includes rough ideas about plot, characters, and settings. My goal is to mine my mind to find out what the story is about and how it will be structured.

I’ve also created a “scenes” document. This began with the six key scenes that comprise a well-structured story (an opening hook, pivot point #1, midpoint, pivot-point #2, climax, and the wrap-up). At this stage, I’ve made decisions about how I want the story to begin, and two key plot twists to get me to the midpoint. That’s when things get hazy.

Garry Dinnerman, my screenplay agent, gave me some sage advice recently that applies to novel writing, as well: “When you get stuck, figure out how you want it to end and work backwards from there.” So that’s what I’m doing now: I know how I think the book should end, I just need to figure out how to make it happen.

One key bit of insight I’m getting as I build the book is the dynamic relationship between character and plot. I’m discovering that character affects plot and vice versa.

Sometimes, in my writing session, I sketch a character. Other times I’ll think about plot. This is where my journalism training is helpful because I follow my curiosity by simply asking questions to get to know the character or situation better. (Anyone who knows me knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of my inquisitions – you have my deepest sympathy and apologies, plus the warning that I’m not likely to mend my ways anytime soon.)

The better I get to know a character, the more likely it is that some bit of plot action will emerge. And, as I think about what should happen in one of those key scenes, the reporter in me begins to “work the story” by asking the basic journalistic questions: Who? Where? What? When? Why? How? Answering those questions fills in plot details and also can yield new characters. It goes back and forth.

The more I sketch the story, the more eager I am to begin writing. That’s a good sign. But I’m not there yet. I’ll know I’m ready to write when the urge becomes overpowering. That will be when I can see the sketch whole. The big picture will still be missing lots of details, but I’ll be able to fill those in during the writing of the first draft and then add embellishments during the revision process.

So, that’s where I am and that’s where I’m going. Watch for future updates on the journey. Your comments or suggestions are most welcome.

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