When people hear I’m an author of mystery novels, they often ask how I manage my work. I’d like to say that I am just a natural writer with words just flowing from my fingers each day, but I’m not. I don’t know anyone who is, actually. We all have our own tricks for staying on track.
Usually, I know the main points of my story. I know how it opens. I know how it ends. I may know one or two scenes I want to include, but in truth, I have no idea how to get from Point A—the first page—to Point B—the last page.
I don’t even really know how I’m going to get to the crime. Or who the victim will be. Or who the killer is. Or any characters except my main character.
So I start writing.
After I’ve written one or two chapters, I take stock of what I’ve got. Does this feel like the start of a mystery novel? Or does it feel like the random scratching of someone who has no idea where they’re going?
Assuming I’m reasonably happy with the first few chapters, I pull out my secret weapon—a pad of yellow stickies. I jot down a bunch of scene ideas, one per sticky, and I include character names.
So one scene might be “Fin meets a hunky Australian and they flirt.” The hunky Australian went through many iterations. His name went from Chad, to Chris, to several other ideas until he coalesced around Liam. Okay, so now we have Liam.
Another scene might be “Fin’s ex-husband asks her to dinner.” Enter Alec Stone, her ex. She once described him as a rabid weasel.
When I have sixty or so scenes on yellow stickies, I put them on my white board or the wall and rearrange them until they flow. I may add more where I need a transition or a new character, and I may delete one or two if they seem superfluous.
While I’m writing, I use a short description of what happens in a scene as the chapter name, and I use a special style I set up a special style in Microsoft Word so that chapter names are automatically numbered, always start on a new page, and will appear in the table of contents. Then, as my work progresses, I can just skim through the table of contents to make sure it still flows. And if not, it’s easy to find a specific scene and move it.
I use Microsoft Excel to track my work. I decide when I want to be done, and I set up the sheet to track the total number of words I’ve written, the average number of words per day, and the average number of words per day I would need to do to finish on time.
When I’m in the zone and the roadmap is good, I can do 3500 words per day. When it’s not going so well, I consider 150 words per day good. I try not to stress over the daily word counts because they aren’t the important numbers.
The important numbers are the average words per day finished and the average words per day I need to finish on my target date. I use 90,000 words as my goal, but I stop anytime I think I’ve reached the end after 75,000, because I know by the time I finish editing, it’ll be right on target.
The most important part of the spreadsheet is the all important pie chart. When I’m just starting, it feels like the sections never change. Once I’m in the middle, I see big jumps every day. While I’m writing, I transfer my total word count to the spreadsheet evert few hours. It keeps me motivated to see the total jump, and the pie chart to update.
Some of my methodology is unique to me, but it works for me, and it keeps me on track.
I once wrote a book out of order, and I’ll never do that again. Whenever I got stuck on a scene, I just jumped to a different scene, because I was convinced the words per day were the important metric. Editing that book was a bear because there was no flow. Now I write everything in order, and as I said, I don’t stress as long as my averages are on target. Editing is still a bear, but it’s a baby bear, not the papa.
I’m interested in how the other Miss Demeanors manage their own work. Comments, anyone?
Sharon Ward is a successful freelance writer specializing in technology, manufacturing, and supply chain—even before the supply chain became the topic of the year. Before that, she worked at some of the most successful tech companies in the world, including Microsoft and Oracle. Her real love, though, is diving. As a PADI-certified divemaster, Sharon helped local dive shops with their training classes and has hundreds of dives under her weight belt. Wanting to share the joy and wonder of the underwater world, she wrote In Deep, her debut novel, released in August 2021. The second in the series, Sunken Death, was released on December 31, 2021. The third, Dark Tide, will hit the shelves in the spring of 2022.