Plowing Through

Sometimes you just can’t stop. Sometimes, despite knowing that slowing down, stopping, regrouping, is the best way to handle a plot challenge, or the slow-as-molasses in January feeling you get while working on a first draft, you just keep going.

That’s what I’m doing with Black Sun Descending. It’s been, by far, the most lethargic first draft I’ve penned as a writer. I’ve been at it for six weeks and I’m just 43,000 words in. Normally I take a month and I’m done. The words just pour out like sewage from a ruptured municipal pipe, all raw and fowl but at least on the page, and ready for the second draft treatment.

Not Black Sun Descending.

Part of it is I’ve been on the road a great deal with my full-time, paid work; part of it is I haven’t outlined this novel as well as I should have. Maybe part of it is I’m distracted by so many other book ideas that Black Sun literally has to compete for neural pathways to get to my fingertips and out onto the computer screen.

I did take a few hours the other morning to stop my manic effort to bulldoze the book into existence and sort out a few plot challenges. Who are all these people, I asked myself? Who are the suspects, the supporting characters, and what are their motivations? Normally I work all of this out ahead of time, but for some reason I just threw myself into this project with considerably less of an outline than I’m accustomed too.

Four years ago I wrote the synopsis for this three-book series, with Black Sun Descending being the second book of the trio. Sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon I mapped the whole Red Rock Canyon Mystery series, and when I returned from that trip, wrote a six-page précis of the novels. That’s what I’m working off of now. Usually I’ll have twenty or thirty pages of a hand written story-board. Now I’ve got two pages of typed material and it’s proving to be insufficient.

Why? Because writing a first draft is no time to stop and wonder what the hell is going to happen next, or who is this character and why do they keep insisting on showing up in my manuscript.

I got some of that sorted out the other day, but I’m still flying a little blind. And I suspect there is a canyon wall somewhere there in the fog.

I’ll get through it. If you scroll back through some of the posts in the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog, you’ll see, as I do, that its always the same. Middle of the book: slow down, complain, question, moan, and keep going. Its the only way to get these things done. Plow through. No matter what.

Black Sun Rising

It’s dumping snow and I’m sitting at my keyboard, rather than hitting the slopes. That must mean I’m working on a first draft. The book is called Black Sun Descending, and it’s the second novel in the Red Rock Canyon mystery series set in the American Southwest.

It’s been ten months since I finished the first draft of The Glacier Gallows. That book, the fourth instalment in the Cole Blackwater mystery series, is now safely at my story editor (safe, that is, until I get it back and all hell breaks loose).

Ten months is a long time for me to go without working on a first draft. My publication schedule with TouchWood Editions has us releasing a book every six months. With three series on the go, that means whenever a new book is released in one series, I start working on the first draft of the next one. That leaves 18 months for the development of a novel, from word one to the final edit, cover design, printing and launch. That’s not much time, and my publisher has suggested that we need to get ahead of the curse and start working 24 months in advance.

That’s a great theory, but it’s proving tough in real life.

It’s not because I don’t want to write, or have ideas; the opposite is true. I have too many ideas. And sometimes life gets in the way.

Shortly after The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock series, was released last September, Jenn and I went to Morocco. The fall had been very busy with my paid work, and I didn’t get a jump on Black Sun for a variety of reasons. We spent three weeks in Northern Africa, and on the last day in Marrakesh we learned that Jenn’s mom, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer for a while, but who had been stable since June, had suddenly fallen into a coma. It took us 48 hours of exhausting travel to get from Morocco to Spain, London, Calgary and finally Nanaimo. We spent a week at her bedside before she passed away without having woken.

Two weeks later my mother’s husband, Ernie, died of cancer too.

I didn’t write a word of Black Sun until early January.

There have been other words in the intervening months. I wrote three new essays for my forthcoming work of non-fiction, Running Toward Stillness, to be published by Rocky Mountain Books in September. I also worked with the amazing editors there on the final story and copy edits, and spent a spellbinding week sorting through some 20,000 of my images to select forty for that collection. That was a highlight of the last few months for me; I’ve dreamed of having my photos published for longer than I’ve dreamed of being a writer.

All that to say, I’m behind. Fortunately, TouchWood made the decision not to publish my next mystery until next year at this time – so I wouldn’t have two books released at the same time – so I’ve caught a break time-line wise. I’m 15,000 words into what I expect will be an 80,000 word first draft, and have started to develop the familiar rhythm to the work. I’m writing a couple thousand words before breakfast most mornings, and on weekends I’m getting in three or four thousand down on paper.

It feels good, and I’m enjoying the characters and the plot and trying not to get hung up on research as I’m writing. I’m keeping a list of big questions that I’ll have to go back too to sort through at the end (such as, how long would it take a body to decompose if it was buried in the toxic tailings of a uranium mine?).

My constant enemy in this process isn’t writers block. I’ve simply never, ever had it; never for more than a few minutes or an hour. I’m simply too bull-headed to stop. My theory about writers block is to just keep writing, no matter what. No, my enemy is ideas. I have too many of them.

In addition to the seven books I’ve had published (The Third Riel Conspiracy has just been released), and the three that I currently have in the works for publication in the next 18 months, I have another twenty-seven book ideas in some form of development. Yes, I am a geek: I keep a chart.

When Jenn and I were in Morocco, a simple event like taking too long in the washroom at the airport spawning a story idea that by the time we returned had developed into a novel called Insha’Allah: The Willingness of God. Last week, in the time to took to walk to the bathroom at 3 a.m. and back, a few decades of thinking about a book set during the French resistance during World War Two became a trilogy mixing sci-fi and hard-boiled noir called Occupied.

You see the problem? I’m writing about 200-250,000 words a year right now, including all this inane blogging. Two books a year is a hell of a pace for a guy with a full time job. Thirty books will take me fifteen years to write. I’ll be fifty-seven. And it’s not like I can turn off the tap. Hell, I’m afraid to go to the john at night for fear of having new ideas.

My challenge is to stay focused. To, as blogger and novelist Chuck Wendig says, finish the shit I start.

So Black Sun Descending is on my morning’s agenda for the next month. Stay tuned to the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog for updates from the front lines.

Good Friday Writing

I finished the first draft of The Glacier Gallows today at twelve thirty this afternoon. On the dot. The manuscript is full of holes and there are rents in the plot that you could drive just about any cliché you wanted to through. But they can all be fixed, and most will, in the subsequent drafts. Because I made a bunch of plot changes towards the end of the novel, I’m going to have to go back and make more additions and subtractions early in the book.

I penned about 8,000 words this morning. I had planned to work on this manuscript over the long weekend, being at home sans wife and children, and now that it’s done all have to do for the next few days is sit back and gloat. And go skiing.

In case you’re just dying to know, here’s what a day in the life looks like as I race through the conclusion of a first draft.

10:30 pm. A good morning’s writing starts with an early bed time. Healthy, wealthy and all that, minus the wealthy.

4:14 am. Wake up, already thinking about the final chapters of the book. I just fall back asleep when…

4:50 am. The alarm goes off. I lay in bed for a couple of minutes and then go down to the kitchen, make tea.

5:00 am. Back in bed I listen to the news. I usually do this in my office, but Jenn is away so I won’t wake anybody.

5:03 am. The news is the abbreviated version reserved for holiday’s when there is little newsworthy going on, or nobody left at the CBC to report it. Thanks Stevo. Feel cheated. Listen to the first 6 minutes of some BBC show on science.

5:09 am. Still savouring my first cup of tea, I commute the 7 steps to my office and read the Globe and Mail, Politico, and Pearls before Swine, online.

5:11 am. Open The Glacier Gallows and start reading the last few paragraphs I wrote yesterday.

5:12 am. Read Calvin and Hobbs. That’s right. On Go Comics you can read the whole strip, right from the start, with a new instalment daily. The internet is swell.

5:13 am. Back to The Glacier Gallows: start writing. I’m still not fully awake so it’s slow going at first.

5:20 am. Make second cup of tea. First breakfast: Honey-nut cheerio’s with almond breeze.

5:30 am. I work my way through some minor changes that I was thinking about at 4:14 and then start into a new chapter. The writing comes very quickly at this point and by 6:20 I’ve written 1,200 words.

6:21am. Third cup of tea. I switch to decaf (And don’t sneer. Taylor’s of Harrogate makes the best bagged tea in the world and they started making a decaffeinated tea and it’s awesome.)

6:30 am. Check Tweet Deck. Send a few tweets. Check Facebook. Check weather forecast and look at Ski Louise web site. Fantasise about skiing.

6:40 am. Back at it. (Sound of whip cracking.) I bore into the next chapter, and write another 1,100 words before…

7:30. Fourth cup of tea. Back to caffeine. High octane stuff. I use a fork to speed the steeping process.

7:33 Get distracted (again, always) by sunrise out my office window. Take pictures. Upload. Edit. Post.

The view from my office window of Mount Peter Lougheed (right), Wind Ridge (forested, foreground) Mount Allen (centre) and Mount Collembola (left)

7:42. For the next couple of hours I work on one of the climatic scenes in the book. It’s the much anticipated (by me) chase scene. Good fun.

9:45. Fifth cup of tea. Back to decaf. Switch things up. Keep the adrenal glands guessing. Second breakfast: toast with jam. I’ve come to a plot challenge that I have to work through, so I pace around the empty house, talking to myself. “Well, what would Cole do? He would do this…No, no, no he would do this….”

10:04 am. Take a shower. Next to going for a run, this is the easiest way for me to solve a plot problem.

10:09 am. Warm up fifth cup of tea.

10:10 am. Back at it. The plot challenge overcome, I burn through the a very long, exciting chapter that involves a car chase, a gun fight, a fist fight, an car accident and livestock being startled by masked assailants.

11:45 am. I want more tea, but it’s a bad idea, so I drink a glass of water and feel slightly righteous.

11:47 am. All I have left is a short epilogue. Not much room for creativity there….But wait, the excitement isn’t over! I decide to set up the fifth Cole Blackwater book right there in the epilogue. Legault you clever fellow. That’s where all the smug gloating comes from.

12:30 pm. I punch the last period of the last sentence of the last paragraph….you get the idea…of the first draft of The Glacier Gallows.

12:31 pm. Tweet about it.

12:32 pm. Wonder what I’m going to work on next.

If you would like to know what comes next, follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

To read all of my posts on Deconstructing Draft One for both The Glacier Gallows and The Third Riel Conspiracy, click here.

Just the dude at the keyboard

Rest easy: I made it through the rough patch.

Everybody seemed so concerned. I did an interview with Russell Bowers, the host of CBC’s Daybreak Alberta last Thursday and he started the interview noting that I was in a bit of a jam. He had read this blog. It’s no big deal, I assured him: Cole got the pickup truck moving again and he’s no longer loitering on the streets of Cheyenne Wyoming.

He did get himself in a heap of trouble, mind you.

Things don’t always go as planned when I’m working on a first draft. That’s certainly been the case with The Glacier Gallows. Given that this story has been in my head for more than five years, and the meticulous planning that I do when I’m preparing to pen a first draft, you’d think that this would have been all but feta-complete. It doesn’t work that way. I step into first draft mode with a solid idea as to where I’m going, and a good idea as to how to get there, but there are a lot of miles between word one and word ninety-five thousand.

Characters change; the story takes on a life of its own. It goes in directions that I couldn’t’ have foreseen. It’s a living thing: born of the grey matter between my ears in part, but more a mixture of the creative soup of the cosmos than anything else. I’m just the dude at the keyboard.

The one thing that has happened in penning The Glacier Gallows that has never happened before is about two-thirds of the way through I changed who the killer is. I didn’t see that coming. But there I was working my way through that jam in the plot line when it occurred to me that the killer had been revealed too soon, and maybe I had better rethink this whole mess.

I did, and things changed. I’ll have to go back in draft two and expand on some stuff in the early chapters, but I’m pretty happy with the way the story is shaping up.

As always, there’s going to be a lot of work to do to get this book to print in the next eighteen months. And I’ve still got three or four chapters, and another six or eight thousand words to write tomorrow morning, but I’m in the home stretch. I think.

Wanna read more about first drafts and plot changes? Follow along @stephenlegault.


I’m writing this blog post about the first draft of The Glacier Gallows because it’s easier than writing the first draft of the Glacier Gallows.

I hit a wall this morning. It’s not an insurmountable wall. From experience I know that I’ll overcome this obstacle, but it stopped me never the less.

I’m about 75,000 words into the book; this is the time when the story’s pace is supposed to be peaking; when all the red hearings are supposed to be evaporating, and our hero – Cole Blackwater – is supposed to be figuring out what exactly the mystery in the novel actually is.

But he’s not. I left him parked in a pickup truck in Cheyenne Wyoming this morning. He’s about to brace one of the bad guys in the story; a character who the reader hasn’t met, but who we have heard a lot about.

The problem is, I’m just not certain what happens next.

I have my outline, but so far into the novel a few things have changed, and the outline only says that Cole discovers that…. It’s not much help, frankly. When I was writing the outline I knew this would be a problem, but trusted I’d have a solution by the time I got to this point in the novel. I don’t. Not yet.

I know what I’m supposed to do: Just keep writing. And I will. Tomorrow morning I’ll sit back down and write my way through the obstacle. I’ve learned to trust the first draft process. This is my 9th first draft, and after facing this challenge before, in particular in The Third Riel Conspiracy, I know that if I just keep my fingers moving, I’ll get enough material down in the first draft that I can clean up the plot in subsequent versions of the book.

Trust is a critical component of the creative process. These stories emerge from somewhere I can only vaguely describe as my imagination. And what is that? Imagination is a part of the subconscious self that is connected with the vast store of ideas, energy, information and inspiration that makes up the universe around us. We’re all connected to that storehouse of creativity; for some the pipe is just a little fatter, allowing the ideas to flow faster, and with greater regularity. Practice and millage is what makes the pipe bigger.

We have to trust the creative process. It’s never failed me before, and it won’t fail me now. Part of that trust is knowing this can’t be forced. I can’t force myself to solve this plot problem. I can work at it, but in this case working to solve the problem means taking a step back and letting my subconscious take over. I’ll meditate and later today I’ll go for a long run in the hills. As Lao Tzu says, emptiness is the source of all things.

The way to overcome these challenges is to relax and not worry too much about it. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that I’ll write my way through this predicament and the novel will take shape. It might not be very good, but I’ve got lots of time for second, third and fourth drafts.

One technique I’ve used to tap into this creative store-house in the past is to sleep on the vexing challenge. Before going to bed I meditate on the problem (which means, I clear my mind of the challenge and then ask myself a simple, clear question) planting the seed in my subconscious and believing that when I wake up, I’ll have the solution. Sometimes it takes several days, but this almost always works.

So I’ve left Cole sitting in his truck, watching, and waiting for me, his author, to know what to do next. I’m as excited as the next guy to find out what that will be.

If you want to find out what happens next when I do, follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Click here to read more notes about Deconstructing Draft One.

The middle of everywhere

I reached a landmark in the writing of The Glacier Gallows over the weekend. On Sunday morning I finished Part 1 of the book. 53,000 words in, and there it was. It took me a few false starts to get there; the children needed food, and there was this business of household chores: apparently the kitchen and bathrooms need to be cleaned every now and again.

But on Sunday morning I breezed past the 225 page mark, wrapping up what I consider to be a distinct part of this novel. In the first half of the book the story is told by several people, in different places, and at different times. At the end of Part 1 the various timelines and character-perspectives collapse into one. Cole Blackwater, the novel’s protagonist, is part of each chapter but sometimes only peripherally. At the end of Part 1 the focus shifts squarely onto Cole and will remain there throughout Part 2.

Without giving too much away, Part 1 is where Cole Blackwater gets into something of a pickle. Cole is working on a climate change project with Brian Marriott, his once arch-enemy who used to work for the Petroleum Industry.  Brian is murdered while they are leading a hike though Montana’s Glacier National Park, thus the glacier part of the title. Cole isn’t above suspicion, hence the gallows.

On Sunday I wrapped up Part 1 and then I just kept on going. Right into the middle of nowhere.

The next morning I started back again with Part 2 and realized that I was boring myself to tears; never a good sign. After a rather dramatic culmination of the action at the end of Part 1, I had to keep the energy up in the middle of the book. I backed up and took a run at it again. The reader, I guessed, will likely expect the same sort of walloping suspense that the book starts with (or at least that I think it starts with, delusional pen-jockey that I am). I think my second attempt was better; at least I was able to stay awake.

The middle of the novel is always a challenge for me. By breaking this book into two distinct parts, I’m trying to inject some freshness into the middle nowhere; make it the middle of everywhere!

To keep the middle of everywhere from becoming the middle of a bowl of mushy oatmeal, I’ve been developing a few first draft techniques:

1. Avoid exposition

I try to keep the plot crisp and resist the urge to melt into narcissistic explosion, expounding on how much my characters (ie: I) know about the world by having them droll on in their heads about subject matter only peripherally related to the novel’s plot. I know from that which I speak: I’ve done this many times, and thankfully my story editor has had the good sense and courage to remind me that I’m writing a mystery novel and not a polemic on some environmental issue or a lesson on Canadian history.

2. Keep everybody talking

With The Glacier Gallows I’m writing as much of the book as possible as pure dialog. I learned from reading one of Chuck Wending’s expletive-filled but insightful blog posts on the craft of writing to eliminate as much exposition as possible. If I have to, I’ll fill in some additional scenery and details in subsequent drafts.

The reader, I am told, is less likely to skip over dialog than narrative description or exposition. That means they will continue to read through the mushy middle if you just keep everybody talking.

3. Now is a good time for that plot twist you’ve been saving

I like to introduce a plot twist somewhere in the middle of the story. In the Cardinal Divide the twist was the discovery that the murder hadn’t actually happened where the cops and even the protagonist thought it had. In the Darkening Archipelago the twist was the revelation that Archie Ravenwing, heretofore believed to have died in an accident at sea, had actually been murdered. Do something to keep the reader on their toes. Give them a jolt to get the blood circulating. Step away from the cattle prod; yes you.

4. Cut to the Chase

If you’re slogging along wondering when the hell your novel will finally come to an end, there’s a good chance it will, and sooner than you want it to. Scrap pile of broken dreams time. Sometimes when I’m writing the middle of a book I catch myself wishing I didn’t have to scribble all this crap and could just get to the good stuff. So I do. As I said above, if what you’re writing seems tedious and tired, there’s a very good chance readers will find it tedious and tired as well. Get to the point! Skip a chapter, even two: write the next chase, cut to the sex scene, or revel in the big reveal. There’s a fair chance that whatever you are labouring through is unnecessary anyway. Even if it isn’t entirely, you can likely cut 75% of it and still have a stand up novel.

5. Beware False Summits.

I hate false summits. When in the mountains, sometimes I’ll look up and think, wow: I’m almost there! Then I crest the rise and realize I still have a thousand feet of elevation gain and I’m out of Snickers bars.

In writing, however, false summits can be useful. I started dabbling with them when I wrote early drafts of The Vanishing Track, and continued with the publication of The End of the Line. The reader gets the impression that the mystery has been solved and there’s nothing left but the Sherlockian summation of the crime when whapo! More action, another twist, more fisticuffs! This sort of thing helps me write the mushy middle because I never hesitate to throw one of these false summits somewhere into the middle of the book.

6. Head down, chin up

Sometimes the middle of the book is just plain hard work to write. The excitement of starting a new project is long in the rear-view mirror. At the 45 or 50,000 word mark I’m still 45 or 50,000 words from the end. This is the time when I heed some of the best advice I’ve read. It’s from Henry Millar: “When you can’t create you can work.” It’s not all glamour; it’s not all car chases and fist fights and nail biting tension. Sometimes it’s weaving a complex story that slowly, deliberately builds towards a crescendo.

Sometimes I just put my head down and write through whatever ennui I’m feeling towards my project. Sometimes I’ll just force myself to write another thousand or fifteen hundred words, even if I know I’m going to burn them in a garbage can during the next draft. It gets the creative juices flowing. If nothing else, I can write my way to the next car chase or fist fight.

I’m trying to learn the difference between this need to just work through a difficult chapter and plain old boring writing. It’s the difference between being in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere.

Fifty thousand words to go.

To read more  blog posts on Deconstructing First Draft, click here.

For updates, follow me on Twitter: @stephenlegault.

First Draft Doldrums

I hit the first draft doldrums this morning. I didn’t write a word of the first draft of The Glacier Gallows, the 4th book in the Cole Blackwater series. First morning in three weeks I haven’t penned a word. I’m at 33,000 words of what will be a 90,000 word first draft – twenty chapters in – and I hit the wall.

One day isn’t a big deal, but I suspect that this will last a few days. The problem isn’t a lack of passion for this book. On the contrary, I am really enjoying this story. Nor is it that this book is particularly hard to write. It isn’t. Compared to my recent foray into the morass of Canadian history in The Third Riel Conspiracy, this is easy. Unlike with the Durrant Wallace series, where I have to remain true to historical events, characters and timelines, with the Cole Blackwater series I can make just about everything up. It’s simple, easy writing that flows and as I’ve said elsewhere, I am really enjoying visiting with Cole again after so long apart.

The problem is that I’m out of my element. I’m writing this update from a hotel in East Glacier Montana. In the last week I’ve been in Nanaimo and Comox, BC; Pincher Creek and Calgary, AB, back home for a single night, and now back on the road. (There is a Doberman pincher with a shot gun guarding my house; don’t get any ideas).

I need habit to write well. I get up at 4:45 or so, drink a cup of strong tea, listen to the 5am news, and then write for two hours straight. On the weeks when the kids are with us, I break for breakfast and to walk them to school, and then come home to my day job. Weeks when they are not I can usually stretch my writing time until 8am. Sometimes in the evening I get a little editing in.

But life is busy and these are trying times, and so I’ve been on the road this week.

It’s not a big deal. In another week or so and I can resume my pattern. The book will get written. That’s not my concern. But I miss it. I love the feeling that comes with churning out three or four thousand words in the morning. It feels as if I’ve accomplished something of value.

The wind will be back in my sails soon enough. I won’t throw any horses overboard (oblique reference to the Horse Latitudes). And sometimes a break is what is needed to allow the story to congeal a little during my traditionally spastic episodes of first draft mania. What I’ve learned is that the pause is often as necessary as the activity in creating something of worth.

10,000 down

This morning I hit the ten thousand word mark of The Glacier Gallows. This book will be the fourth instalment of the Cole Blackwater mystery series.

Two weeks ago I started the story outline process, as noted in the first installment of Deconstructing Draft One. That process went faster than I thought it would, due in part to some extensive notes I’d made about the book almost two years ago. I finished the story-board for the novel last weekend, and have been rising at 5am every morning for the last week (weekends I sleep in until 6 or so) to write.

A good story board is essential to my writing process as are several other key pieces of background information.

  1. A story board usually comprises a chapter by chapter outline of what happens, including key pieces of the mystery puzzle, location and setting, important weather information and character development. Each chapter usually fits on a third to a half page, and sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly creative I draw them in call outs or bubbles connected my arrows, to indicate the flow of the story. They’re optional.
  2. In the case of The Glacier Gallows, I’ve developed a fairly extensive (maybe too extensive) list of characters. In addition to Cole Blackwater, the protagonist, there are at least a dozen and a half other characters in the book. That might be too many for a reader (or the writer) to keep track of, so it may be winnowed down.
  3. I have a four page hand written explanation of what actually lead to the murdered man’s death, including an extensive history of his actions leading up to his demise. This is important as it informs some of the substantive details of six or eight short chapters that look at the murdered man’s trajectory leading up to his killing and highlights his intersection with key suspects. I hope it will also create a connection between the reader and the murdered man.
  4. Finally, there’s a list of red-herrings. Each red herring is linked to a character and has its own connection to the background on the murdered man, and the story board. To keep the reader guessing, these red herrings have to be built in a way that suspends belief. A solid background sketch for each makes this easier.

All of this material sits in a file folder or is scattered across my desk as I pen chapter after chapter of the book. It makes the writing process much easier: each morning I can concentrate on dialog and plot rather than trying to think about what happens next. As I’ve said before, usually by the end of the first draft I’ve strayed a little from the outline, but what’s important is that I know I’m straying, and not just careening wildly.

One thing I’ve noticed in penning The Glacier Gallows is how easy it is to be back visiting with Cole Blackwater. It’s been six hears since I wrote the first draft of The Vanishing Track, due out in March (I actually opened a case of my author’s copies this week while writing the next instalment of the series). When I wrote the first draft of The Vanishing Track, I had yet to hear from NeWest that they wanted to publish The Cardinal Divide. Writing the third book in a series was a leap of faith.

In the fall I wrote a book called The Third Riel Conspiracy, which is a historical mystery set in 1885 around the events of the North West Resistance, a pivotal moment in the history of Canada. I blogged extensively about this first draft process. It was really hard. Matching my plot with the actual events of those months of open warfare across the North West Territories was challenging. Writing about Cole Blackwater’s misadventures requires no such attention to historical fact. I can make just about everything up without worrying if the events match the day to day occurrences of the Battle of Batoche or the trial of Louis Riel.

So The Glacier Gallows is well underway. I’m working on chapter six of what will likely be a forty chapter book. I’m enjoying being back with Cole, working on dismantling the fragile peace he has found by the end of The Vanishing Track, and introducing a very new twist on the series as he descends into the dark world of the energy and climate change politics.

Follow along with my progress on the first draft of The Glacier Gallows by checking in on Deconstructing Draft One from time to time. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault for regular updates on this and other writing projects.

Deconstructing Cole Blackwater

On Monday I was up at 4 a.m. There was no good reason to be up that early. Despite trying to get another hour of sleep, I could not, so I started to write The Glacier Gallows.

I’m really excited to be working on this book, though it could have waited until 5 a.m when I had planned on rising. I suppose my excitement to start this new project was what got me up in the first place. As I said on Friday, getting to visit with Cole again is like spending time with an old friend that you haven’t seen for years. I needn’t have been worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say to one another: we’ve got history.

So now I’m going to deconstruct draft one again. For The Third Riel Conspiracy – my last effort into this dissection process – I started as I began typing, and after a year where the novel had sat dormant. Not so this time. The ideas are fresh in my mind, so starting on Monday I began my story board process. I’d made some rough notes about where I wanted to the story of the fourth Cole Blackwater book to go over the last couple of years, so I began by reviewing those, and then launched right into the chapter by chapter synopsis.

Often I’ll use large sheets of butcher paper to do this, but at 4am on Monday wrestling with a roll of 3 foot long paper seemed like too much work, so I used a legal pad. My habit is to create compact bubbles or call-outs and pencil a succinct outline of what happens in each.

As soon as I began this undertaking questions arose around characters, motives, time lines, and red herrings. I started a new page called “what really happened” and wrote down everything that led up to the murder in The Glacier Gallows: what did the murdered man do that resulted in his death? Why did he do it? Next I wrote down a couple of pages of red herrings: what would happen throughout the book that would lead my protagonist, Cole Blackwater, astray in his investigation? The dead man was killed for a reason, but there was more than one person who wanted him scratched. This lead to the creation of characters associated with each red herring who would become suspects, all with their own set of motives, along with associated means and opportunities to commit the brutal act.

Brief characters sketches followed, and then a timeline. As with The Darkening Archipelago, I’ve decided to start with the murder scene, and then split the narrative, allowing the reader to look back in time 6 months to watch as the murdered man undertakes the actions that lead to his untimely demise. At the same time, in alternating chapters, the reader can witness the immediate aftermath of the killing and Cole’s furtive attempt to unravel the mystery. In plotting this creates a lot of opportunity for cliff hangers as the reader learns something from the deceased’ past and then witnesses Cole and his friends uncover information in the present that supplements the readers understanding of the crime.

This all took a couple of early mornings. At times I’d find myself staring blankly at the book shelf next to my couch where I was writing and suddenly a whole series of questions would be answered and I’d be left marvelling at the creative process.

This morning I was able to return to the chapter by chapter story board and completed the first six. Referring back to the notes I made about the overall trajectory of The Glacier Gallows, I’m now able to answer questions that I had about the murder itself. In addition, the research that I did for The Slickrock Paradox, about how a murder in a National Park (in Slickrock its Utah’s Arches National Park, while in the Gallows it’s on the border of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park) might be handled by the US National Park Service, the FBI, the RCMP and State and local authorities.

I expect that the chapter plotting will take me another week, and then I’ll be able to sit down and start typing. My goal is to have a first draft of The Glacier Gallows completed by the end of March. That’s longer than it would normally take, but I have less time to write, and my commitment to myself is to slow down just enough to address some of my systemic errors in order to make the overall process of novel writing more efficient and produce a better read.

Stay tuned as I post more blog entries in the Deconstructing Draft One category. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault as I post to the hashtag #draftone updates on my progress.

7 Questions for a 1st Draft

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to start work on a new Cole Blackwater mystery. I guess that screws up the suspense over whether Cole survives his most perilous encounter yet in The Vanishing Track. Cole’s too much fun to kill off. Not now. But I’m not saying he gets through The Vanishing Track unscathed.

I’m really excited to start work on this book whose working title is The Glacier Gallows. The last time I penned a first draft of a Cole Blackwater book was the winter 2006-2007. The prospect of getting to visit Cole again is like the anticipation of seeing a really close friend for the first time in years. I’m really excited to explore how Cole has changed, and a little nervous that we won’t have anything to talk about.

In The Glacier Gallows Cole will be back in familiar territory, working on environmental issues; this time energy and climate change. About two years ago I wrote six or seven pages of the outline of the book, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget what I was considering for the fourth instalment of the series. I re-read them the other night, and now I’m getting ready to start draft one. Two things need to happen before I start the mad-capped, hell-for-leather, eye-popping, sleep-depriving, masochistic odyssey that is associated with writing 100,000 words or so in a month of early mornings.

Well three things, if you include a trip to visit my shrink for a thorough examination of my mental stability.

First, I’m going to take a few hours and think about, and write down some tough questions I want to answer with this novel (see blow). Then, I’m going to undertake my traditional story-board exercise that has served me well with six or seven previous novel projects. Here are the questions:

1: Why am I writing this novel?

Obvious, and easy: Cole isn’t finished. As a character, he’s still got a lot of room for growth, discovery, challenge, adversity, and triumph. The narrative arc for Cole’s development in the first three books was centred on facing and then addressing the damage done to him as a young man at the hands of an abusive father. But a few sessions with his own shrink and some Tai Chi with his best friend Denman won’t turn Cole into a crystal wearing, flax seed eating, organic tea drinking pacifist. He’s a boxer; a fighter, and a lifetime of anger and aggression isn’t conquered in the few months that make up The Vanishing Track. In short: Cole isn’t done.

The other reason is that there are still tales to tell. My premise for penning the Cole Blackwater mysteries was to tell compelling stories about complex environmental and social issues in a way that engaged a new audience. It happens that in the course of this story telling people get killed. Murder makes a compelling backdrop against which I can talk about mining, salmon farming, homelessness and now energy and climate change. Alas, fodder for these stories will never be exhausted.

2: What will make The Glacier Gallows different?

I hate formulas. It’s the mark of a lazy writer. It’s the mark of a disinterested editor and publisher to let formulaic mysteries and thrillers plague the market. Sure, every mystery series has unique elements that help the reader identify with the character. That’s different.

So how will The Glacier Gallows be different than the three previous books in the series? Well, I can’t tell you. Not yet. I know; but if I tell you, it will spoil a big surprise. You have to wait eighteen months. That sucks, but it’s the way it is. I think it will be worth the wait.

The Cardinal Divide was a pretty straight forward mystery. The story was told start to finish with just a few timeline breaks to allow the reader to see the murder in the first chapter, even through it happens a third of the way through the book.

The Darkening Archipelago was much more complex. The story was told from the perspective of three separate characters: Archie Ravenwing, eight months before the start of the book, and leading up to his death; Nancy Webber, in the present, poking around in Cole’s past; and Cole himself, also in the present, investigating Archie’s disappearance, and ultimately demise. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, all three timelines collapsed into one. It was fun.

The Vanishing Track is a reverse mystery. I love this format. My favourite mystery of all time, The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Saunders, inspired this book. The reader gets to meet the killer in the first chapter and then watch as the protagonist and his friends scramble to solve the crime. My goal is to have readers yelling at their copies the book “He’s right there in front of you you morons!” That will make me happy.

The Glacier Gallows will be completely different. I promise.

3. What do I want to say with this book?

If you’re going to spend 18 months developing a book, you better have something to say. For me, the purpose of writing – whether it be my various mystery series – or my other yet to be published books, is to make the world a better place. Hell, that’s the reason I do anything. But how can a mystery novel make the world a better place? And what exactly is it that I want to say with The Glacier Gallows?

Somebody once told me that all murder mysteries were about social justice because murder is such an egregious wrong that the sleuth therefore is always a crusader for righteousness. True that.

Specifically, though, The Glacier Gallows will be a book about three things:

  • How incredibly stupid it is to be destroying our future on the planet, along with so much of the extraordinary life on said blue orb, in order to drive around in gas-guzzling Hummers and SUVs while eating “food” made of petrochemicals out of containers made of the same. Especially when we have options. Cole Blackwater, as it is alluded to in The Vanishing Track, has emerged from his rage-against-the-machine phase, which made for great rants, but would get boring quick, into his “solutions” phase. Now he’s working with businesses to try and find solutions to energy issues and climate change. But his past catches up with him in The Glacier Gallows, which leads to:
  • An understanding of the truth surrounding power and money in the business of energy production and the political corruption that fuels decision making about the Tar Sands and its resulting industries, and:
  • That human development isn’t linear; it’s at best an upwards spiral, and more often some kind of drunken stumble down an ally full of cast off prophylactics, needles filled with heroin and dirty blood and broken bones. At least for Cole it is. Cole is getting a grip on his fear and anger and the violence it induces, along with the heavy drinking that is standard fare for most sleuths. But throw something totally new into the mix; something that triggers all the old impulses, and occurs in the absence of his safety net (best friend, daughter, girl friend) and watch out.

4. What do I want to learn as a writer?

A few things:

  • To write with discipline and a clear focus: 2-4,000 words in two hours each morning, with some editing each night.  I’m pretty disciplined, but am subject to distractions: Twitter, Facebook, John Stewart….
  • To catch my mistakes as I’m making them. That might be hard. I get pretty caught up in the story. I might try to spend an hour each evening tightening things up so that drafts two, three and four aren’t so arduous.
  • How to develop secondary characters, including the antagonists, so that they are more completely drawn.
  • To write women. Haven’t  figured that out yet. I think Nancy Webber is okay, but she could be a much more complete character.
  • To make my voice and my style my own, without fear that it won’t measure up.

5. What do I want the reader to get out of this book?

Besides what I want to say in response to question 3, the most important thing I want to reader to get out of The Glacier Gallows is a perfect moment of suspended disbelief. If my readers disappear into this book, if they lose track of time, forget to pick up the kids, stay up past their bedtimes, leave a kettle boiling while making tea, forget about the beer on the table next to them until its warm and flat and practically undrinkable, that will be a success.

6. How do I see The Glacier Gallows fitting into my career plan?

I have a plan. I’ve written about it for a friend’s blog and will likely post it here sometime soon too. The Glacier Gallows will arrive in the world, if all goes according to plan, in the fall of 2013. It will be my 8th book. I hope that it will be the one that cements Cole Blackwater’s place in the mystery cannon. That’s pretty presumptuous, and maybe a little grandiose (I’ve been watching Newt Gingrich a lot lately). But The End of the Line sold as many copies in its first couple of months as my first two novels did in three years. The Vanishing Track is an unknown, but I hope it will do well too. If it does, there’s no reason to think that The Glacier Gallows can’t follow suit. I want to do this full time. To do that, I have to sell books. It’s pretty straight forward.

7. What future novel do I need to be thinking about?

I have the next three Cole Blackwater books mapped out. Surprise. As with the first three, I need to be seeding Cole’s future challenges and future who-dun-it’s in The Glacier Gallows. I know that Cole needs to be challenged, and I want all of those circumstances to be unique. What is meaningful to Cole that needs to be developed in The Glacier Gallows that might be threatened in subsequent novels? His work is important to him. And so is Nancy Webber. His friends are meaningful to Cole, and so are the places that he loves.

And so is his daughter.

I’m going to pen updates on what I’ve been calling Deconstructing Draft 1 here. Follow along.

The Vanishing Track is due out in March of 2012. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault for updates on this series, the Durrant Wallace historical novels, and a new series due out in September of 2012 called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries.