Behind the Writer’s Curtain: My Writing Process and Current Progress on Book #4 in the Mike Stoneman Thriller Series

                Sometimes people ask me: “What’s the process like to write one of your books?” Or sometimes: “How long does it take for you to write a book?”  For anyone interested in the process . . . read on. I’m writing this on December 28, 2020, after just finishing draft #2 of the new book. The next stop will be the first beta read by my wife (the “alpha” beta). But, I’ll get to that.

The Idea

                Start with the idea. I first had the idea for this book about two years ago, while I was just starting on book #2 in the Mike Stoneman Thriller series. Righteous Assassin (Book #1) was published in November of 2018 and I was struggling to figure out how to market a detective-based crime fiction book as an Indie author with no track record in the genre. I had published my literary fiction epic, A Legacy of One in 2016, then decided to write something more fun (and marketable). I spent two years writing Righteous Assassin and getting it in shape to finally publish in time for Christmas 2018. But, I knew when I subtitled the book “A Mike Stoneman Thriller” that the intention was for it to be book #1 in a series. I wasn’t sure how many books would be in the series, but I knew Mike and Jason Dickson and Michelle McNeill were not going away after one book. I’d put too much energy into creating them, and the world in which they exist (and fight crime).

                I already had a plot for book #2 in the Mike Stoneman series (Deadly Enterprise) that was based on actual news reports about a prostitution ring in Queens headed up by current and former cops. I had come across that story while writing Righteous Assassin and had it in my head. But somewhere in that time period between the publication of book #1 and really starting in on the writing for book #2, I woke up one morning with a plot in my head. You could say it came to me in a dream. I immediately grabbed the pad and pen that I keep by my bed (because I often get these kinds of ideas while I sleep) and scribbled down “Jets Quarterback murdered. Multiple suspects.” (There were some other things included in the scribble, but I don’t want to spoil the new plot.) The scrap of paper went into a folder of “plot ideas” for future books. But I always liked the plot line and although it didn’t work well as book #3 (Lethal Voyage) due to the timeline of my characters, it worked for book #4.

The Title

                Some authors wait until the end of the process to give their book a final title. There’s a working title, and then eventually you settle on a final title because you need to design the cover and start the marketing process. For Righteous Assassin, the working title was “Killer”  It wasn’t until I was writing the part of the book where the New York media gives a moniker to the serial killer that I hit upon the name, which became the title. Then, once I had given book #1 that title, I wanted book #2’s title to have a similar “feel” – giving me Deadly Enterprise. (Ominous-sounding adjective . . . multi-syllabic noun) Well, once that pattern was established, and the covers designed to have a similar look and feel, the following books pretty much have to follow the same pattern. Since book #3 was set on a cruise ship, something consistent with that theme was obvious, becoming Lethal Voyage.

                Some of my best ideas for plot points, characters, and titles come during daily walks around the block with My wife. It was during one of those walks that we were brainstorming possible titles for book #4. Somehow out of a list of potential nouns and adjectives we hit upon Fatal Infraction, which sounds a lot like the famous movie. Not a bad thing. It also incorporates some football terminology. Also a good thing.

                One of the things I do when selecting a title is to run a search to see if that title is already taken by another author. Of course, since my novels are subtitled “A Mike Stoneman Thriller” I can get away with having a title that has already been used by somebody else. But, I don’t feel good about titling my book “The Girl on the Train (A Mike Stoneman Thriller)” or something similar. I try to find a title that is just mine. Fortunately, Fatal Infraction is not already in use. So – “Dibs!

The Research

                There were a few different angles of the early plot for Fatal Infraction that I needed to research. I have notes on my computer from June of 2020 (already in a folder called “Fatal Infraction”) where I was collecting information about a particular autopsy issue on coroner.com (check out this website if you’re into causes of death!). At the time, I was working on the final revisions to Lethal Voyage, which was not finalized as an unpublished manuscript until early July. The research allowed me to sketch out some of the key facts and a timeline for the new story. I also needed to research some very specific points about how the NFL salary cap works. Surprisingly, such research is not easy to find. The NFL’s internal rules are not published. But, I was able to piece together what I think is correct information.

                I will note that very late in the writing process, I reached out to my local NFL team (the one for which I own season tickets) to see if I could get confirmation of my research conclusions. The very helpful gentleman I spoke with from the ticket office said he would reach out to the GM’s office to get me what I need. He seemed genuinely excited about my plot. So far, I’m still waiting for him to get back to me.

The Outline

                The next phase of the process (for me) is to sketch out an outline of the plot. I try to start at the end and work backwards (so I know where I’m going). It generally takes me a week or so to get the very general concept for the plot. Then I try to sketch out a little backstory for the new characters. Those two steps are preliminary to the real objective – the detailed chapter outline.

                The detailed outline is a 2-3 paragraph summary of all the significant things that will happen in that chapter, including main plot and sub-plot/side-plot points, important interactions between characters, etc. The more detailed the outline, the easier it will be to write the actual book chapter when the time comes. Along the way I have to adjust things and revise things in order to make it all make sense through the end. The process of creating the detailed chapter outline can take a month or more. When I finally reach the end, it feels like there is now a “book.”

                For Lethal Voyage, the detailed chapter outline is 14 pages and almost 8000 words. For Fatal Infraction, the outline is 32 pages and nearly 16,000 words!

                Here’s an example of a chapter outline segment from Lethal Voyage:

Chapter 2 — The Lullaby of Broadway.  April, 2019.  New York City.  Midtown hotel room.  Maximillian (Max) Bloom – Broadway talent agent lays in bed, while the woman he just had sex with (but the reader still doesn’t know her name) cleans up in the bathroom.  She discusses her disappointment about Max not getting her the audition he promised her for a new Broadway show.  He gives her a bullshit explanation about the show’s financing not being ready, but tells her that he has gotten her a six month gig on a cruise ship in the meantime, where she can perform in a Broadway-quality show and build her resume as an actress and dancer.  She’s not happy, but she agrees.  He promises her that he’ll get her on Broadway as soon as she gets back to New York after her cruise ship gig.  She asks him if he’s lying to her, and he promises that he’s not.  She tells him that she hopes not, because she would not react well if he were to deceive her.

Once I have a completed detailed chapter outline, I know (about) how many chapters I will have, which translates to a general understanding of whether what I have is a real novel and not just a short story. At that point, I’m ready to start writing.

The Text

                For the most part, when I start writing, I start from Chapter 1. The first chapter – really the first page or two – are critical to grabbing a reader who is browsing through the amazon “Look Inside” preview or who is looking at a paperback. The blurb is even more critical (as is the cover), but if you can get a reader to start actually reading text, you need to “hook” them so they keep going (and want to buy the whole book). So, I’ll write and re-write the first chapter many times. I often post the first chapter on a website called “Critique Circle” where fellow authors (and others) will give you very honest and critical comments on drafts. It’s a great tool if you haven’t tried it!

                For Fatal Infraction, I actually wrote one “middle” chapter first. That’s because there is a very special event in one of the main side-plots in this book, so I wrote that scene first – so that My wife could read it and we could talk about it.

                When I write, I’m focused on “scenes” rather than pages or words. Each chapter, as outlined, will consist of one or two scenes. If one scene is long enough to be a whole chapter, then that’s it. But, some scenes are short, so they get tacked on as a sub-section to a chapter. Sometimes I’ll give a little glimpse of something happening in the sub-plot or side-plot as a sub-section. But, most scenes are one chapter.

                But the rest of the drafting process – through until I typed “The End” at about 2:30 in the morning last Friday. Start to finish, (and keep in mind I have a day job, so I’m writing typically in the evenings while watching TV and on the weekends) it took me about 2 months to complete the first draft of Fatal Infraction.

Draft 1.5 (revised)

                The first draft (when I write it) is littered with notes. My notes typically fall into three types: (1) a reminder to write in something later in the book that relates back to the scene I just wrote; (2) a note to write something earlier in the book to foreshadow or link back to something that comes later that I just wrote; and (3) a note about putting something into the backstory of a character that I just realized is needed. I also will sometimes put in a note that I need to research something to make sure what I just wrote is correct, or I’ll write “check timeline” to remind myself to make sure that the sequence of events makes sense. So, while the first draft is eventually “done,” the book is far from done, and really the first “real” draft is not yet done.

                So, after a few days of letting things sit, I’ll go back and go through the entire draft looking for notes or questions, and make needed insertions or revisions to address all the notes. I’ll also fill in names that I left blank and dates that I left blank during the initial draft. (Why interrupt the creative process by stopping to check what that character’s name was four chapters ago?)

                I’ll also start looking for internal continuity issues, looking for scenes that I wrote but that don’t really connect well with the rest of the story, and characters/scenes that are “orphans” and should be cut out because whatever I thought I was going to do with them, it never happened. It’s like being a film editor trying to cut a film after all the scenes are shot. Some scenes just don’t need to be there. If I find one or two of those, I’ll try to get rid of them. As Ken Levine says, it’s like “killing your babies” to cut out a scene that I wrote. I wrote it! Therefore, it must be good, right? How can I just let it go?

                There are a few scenes that I liked so much that, even though I cut them, or seriously shortened them, I wanted to preserve the original. These are the “director’s cut” outtakes from the books. I have three of them currently posted on my website under My Books/Special Features (Special Features – Kevin G. Chapman) where you can still read the original, uncut text. For Deadly Enterprise there was a wonderful scene set in a prison where Mike and Jason interrogate a woman who may have been involved in the prostitution and drug distribution operation they were investigating. The interplay between the characters in that scene was wonderful – but the scene didn’t ultimately work within the broader story, so I had to let it go. Tough, but necessary.

                Now, after all that – now I have a clean text, with no notes and no blanks. I have a plot that makes sense and (hopefully) has no holes. Now, it’s really a completed first draft. At the moment – it’s 95,000 words, which is about perfect as far as length. Could be 5000 words shorter, but that may still happen in the editing process.

Beta Reads

                The next step in the process is the beta read. The concept here is to get a small group of critical readers to read the manuscript and give you honest, critical comments and suggestions. This isn’t a request for someone to say “I loved it!” It’s a request for readers to day “Here are seven things I didn’t like or that need to be significantly changed in order for this to be really good.”

                The first person who gets to do a beta read is My wife. She is the “alpha” beta reader. After she looks it over, I’ll make more revisions (so, now really a 3rd draft) before anybody else gets it. Once I’ve revised the manuscript after the alpha beta read, it will go out to a small list of 6-8 readers. I’ll prepare a special draft for them that includes embedded notes for the beta readers. These will be a pause in the read where I’ll ask “What did you think about this scene?” or “Did you think that {character’s} actions here are consistent with their personality?”  I’ll ask my beta readers a series of questions at the end of the book, seeking specific feedback.

                For Lethal Voyage, one of my concerns was that there was not enough action between chapter 2 and chapter 19 (when Shirley Bloom died). I was correct in my apprehension, because more than half of my beta readers agreed and said that the story was dragging and the reader might get bored with the meandering story if I didn’t tighten it up some. I did tighten up the text, cut out 4000 words or so, and added a new scene to create some more action and more tension in the story.

The beta read is a super-critical part of the writing process for me. It gives me some fresh feedback from new eyes. No matter how much I try to be objective, I’ve been living with the story for so long that it’s hard for me to see the forest for the trees. The beta readers will tell me if I’ve missed something big so I can fix it even before the manuscript goes to my editor.

The Editor

                After the beta reads and my revisions – now on the 4th draft – it’s time for the book to go off to Samantha (www.Samanthachapmanediting.com). The better the draft is when I give it to my professional editor, the more time she can spend on big picture issues and not spend her time fixing punctuation and grammar. (She’ll do that, also, but why spend her energy on that?) I always expect Samantha to be super-critical and to point out things like a character’s “voice” not being consistent, or where I’ve messed up writing a female character. Samantha will help me polish my manuscript and get it ready for actual publication. This will take several weeks, but it’s so totally worth it.

The Cover

                I’ll post a different blog about the process for creating the cover design. It takes a while, and it’s interesting. Stay tuned for that one.

The Typokillers

                During the writing of Lethal Voyage, I discovered a wonderful service through a group called AuthorsXP. I had already used them for advertising and contests that drummed up emails for my newsletter list and followers for me on Bookbub.  While putting together my marketing campaign for book #3, I purchased (for a very small amount) a service that AuthorsXP offers called “typokillers.” This involves the managers of the AXP group soliciting volunteers (who earn entries to contests) to read the book and to specifically look for typos, punctuation, and grammar errors. They will send me back specific notes that on page 118 there is a missing comma, or a missing close paragraph mark, or there are two words that should be one compound word, etc.  I got 10 readers for $50, and they sent me back 35-40 typos that I missed in all my proofreading and that my editor missed (or that showed up after her editing was done).

                The typokiller group also resulted in 3-4 early reviews of the book, from the typokiller readers who agreed to post their reviews for me. Wow!  I would easily pay $50 just to get 4 publication-day reviews!! This service allowed me to clean up the manuscript pre-publication and fix most of those pesky typos that that otherwise would have been flagged by the first wave of readers. It makes the book look so much more professional for all the early readers.  I highly recommend this service!

The final (backwards) proof

                The last thing I do before I put the book up for publication on amazon is to do a complete proofread myself – starting at the back and working forward. I got this tip from someone (don’t remember who) long ago, and it’s great! You read each paragraph of the book in reverse order. By doing that, your brain disassociates the words on the page from the story that preceded it. Sometimes if you “know” what’s happening, you can gloss over some small error. But, when you read that same sentence in isolation, you’ll see it.

                Oddly, I have also found that by reading backwards, I see continuity issues that I never noticed when reading forward. I’m not sure what the neuro-psychology reason is for this, but going backwards allows me to experience the plot in a different sequence, so it clicks different mental buttons. I always find things in this final read that I never found before.

Time to push the button

                Now, it’s 6-7 months since I started working on the plot outline (at least). The process is getting faster as I’ve been working through the Mike Stoneman Thriller series. Book #1 took 2 years. Book #2 took 1 year. Book #3 was less than a year – allowing me a longer lead period between finishing the text and launching the book live on amazon. Book #4 (partly due to COVID-19) has gone even faster. I just published book #3 on November 22, 2019. My goal now is to publish book #4 by Memorial Day – which would be 6 months later.

                The process is a little different for each book, and there is evolution in my process the more I go through it. Perhaps ten years from now I’ll have a very different blog post. For now, that’s how it is in my writing world. (Now you know what happens in the Room Where It Happens.)

Cheers!


One thought on “Behind the Writer’s Curtain: My Writing Process and Current Progress on Book #4 in the Mike Stoneman Thriller Series

  1. Kevin. My name is Marilyn Callahan. My mom Dolores Callahan is your mom and dad’s friend from high school. I remember you as a small child. In your mom’s Christmas letter she spoke of your upcoming book. We had no idea you were an author. I immediate downloaded your first Mike Stoneman novel. I have just now finished #2 and am purchasing #3. I’m really enjoying your books. Have a Happy New Year. I would love to hear back from you. Marilyn.

    Like

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