Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Creation of My Books

by Sally Berneathy

In real life, I’m a spontaneous, unorganized person. Want to go on a trip? Sure, I’m in! Airline reservations? Okay, sure, when I get time. Motels? Oh, we’ll find one.

Fortunately my boyfriend is very organized. He does all those things and I go along.

A couple of years ago I wanted to attend the Writers’ Police Academy. My mystery writer friends had been telling me all year how wonderful it is. They all signed up. I was so excited about going!

Usually I go to conferences with a friend who has the same personality as my boyfriend. She registers, gets a hotel room and a flight, then orders me to register for the conference and get on the same flight.

But she isn’t a mystery writer. When I finally got around to signing up for the Writers’ Police Academy, registration was closed. All spots taken. That sucked! Well, maybe next year.

Then a friend got word that they had a cancellation. Did I want it? Yes! She gave the conference organizer my name, so when I finally got around to contacting him, the slot was, amazingly, still open. Yay!

Then there was the matter of the hotel room. I got on the Internet and checked. No rooms available. Bummer. I called the hotel to find out the closest place I could stay and still get to the conference. Well, the hotel was kind of isolated. Not much else around. Yikes! But as we were talking, someone called and cancelled! I got a room!

In spite of being a pretty flaky person, I manage to get through life with a little luck and a lot of help from my friends.

My writing style follows my life style. There are two types of writers: (1) Plotters who create an outline of the entire story then write the book. (2) Pantsers who write by the seat of our pants. We begin with the beginning and write the book as it unfolds in our brain. I’m a pantser.

I get an idea for a new book. I create a new folder on my computer for that book then the first document entitled “Notes.” In that document I write whatever comes to mind. “Trent’s ex-wife is going to cause problems.” “A body appears on Lindsay’s lawn, and Henry didn’t drag this one in.” “Rick has a scheme for taking over the international chocolate market.” I also keep notebooks stashed around the house and in my car so I can make notes as ideas occur to me. “Rick GF bro drugs.” Those notes are often hard to decipher, especially the ones written while sitting in my car at a red light or in bed in the middle of the night when I don’t want to turn on the light and wake the boyfriend.

The first chapter unfolds in my head like a movie. I simply write it down.

Then I take that first chapter and my cluttered notes to my critique group and they say things like, “Are you crazy? Fred can’t have a secret baby!”

With a better understanding of what may or may not happen in my upcoming book, I go home and continue writing. Each scene is a surprise. Magic happens. I realize that the cast iron skillet I put in Chapter 2 has a purpose! It’s exactly what Lindsay needs in Chapter 9 to whack her ex over the head.

As I reach the halfway point of the first draft, new plot points come up as if by magic. I write a sticky note for each one. “Go back to Chapter 3 and insert something about the witch in the window.” “Check for references to Chaille and be sure each one shows she’s bat crap crazy.” “Give Chuck a gun in Chapter 7 but he doesn’t know which end the bullets come out of.”

When I do my first round of revisions, I throw away each sticky note as I make the designated change. When my desk is clean, I know my story line is logical.

I sometimes wish I could be a plotter. Like having airline and motel reservations in advance of a trip, an outline of my book would make writing it much easier and reduce the stress of wondering if the Scene Fairy will give me the next one.

When I wrote for Harlequin/Silhouette in the 1990s, I had to turn in a proposal for each new book. A proposal consisted of the first three chapters and a synopsis of the rest of the book. Writing the first three chapters was easy, but the synopsis was a nightmare. I’d call my editor almost every day and bounce ideas off her. She was The Best Editor and always willing to help. Finally after twice the time it took me to write those first three chapters, I’d finish a satisfactory synopsis and send it off. They’d buy the book and I’d write the rest of it…and from Chapter 4 through the end, it had nothing to do with that stupid synopsis.

Now that I write for myself, I don’t have to pretend I know the ending of the book until I get there. Amazingly, I always get there…with a little luck and a lot of help from my friends.


  1. Oh, you are brave! I'm a serious plotter, but none of my plans going forward are set in stone; they're like parlay--more like guidelines. ;-) So I still get to keep some of the spontaneity of pantsing. I recognize some of what I do in your methods, so we can't be that far apart in how we manage to write to the end.

  2. Sally, you give me hope! I write in lots of notebooks, then try to type the stories out and edit from the notes. I like your organization with the sticky notes, so when your desk is clean you know you're finished. I'm going to try that! Thanks!

  3. I love the sticky note idea! Keep going pantser!

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  5. I am totally stealing the sticky note idea. If you have any more like that, let me know! We Pantsers have to stick together ;-)

  6. LOL! I'm so amazed all this works for you! Someone should write a romantic comedy about you :-)