What’s your writing process like? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Learning means doing things differently

I’m currently working on opus xxvii. The new book is something I haven’t done before (very say about each and every one of my books.) Inspired by a book set in my local surroundings is something I haven’t done before. Also, writing a crime novel is something I never expected to do. Nor wanted to. Really! As a writer living in Sweden, there’s this expectation that I write crime and join the ranks of all those who have come before me. Alas, the genre just never appealed to me because I don’t like to read/watch crime myself. I don’t like the gore, the death, and the hunt for the killer. Alas, here I am. The book is well underway, and while it has no title yet and the manuscript isn’t anywhere from being done, the publisher has it scheduled for a spring release.

With every new genre I’ve tackled I had to learn new things, and that is one of the most rewarding things about my craft. Not only do I learn more about the human condition, but I also get to become a better writer in the process. So far, my editors seem to agree with that assessment. The big question is if the evolving writing process leads to better books.

My writing process changes

A writer friend of mine, Wayne Goodman, who hosted me on his podcast Queer Words, always asks his guests if they are pantsers or plotters. I always considered myself a pantser, i.e. I’m writing at the seams of my pants, stream-of-consciousness, character-driven. However, for a crime novel, that does NOT work. You wonder why? In my humble, short, and ongoing experience with the genre, while you can easily “kill” someone in a stream of consciousness (I’ve done THAT before), solving a crime is an entirely different story. You need a motive, you need to have someone somehow solve the crime and preferably toward the end to keep the mystery alive for the reader. Unless of course, you don’t care about the mystery. Then there’s the question of police procedures, and a ton of questions about pathologic issues about dead bodies, decomposing, and whatnot. It’s just a very complex topic.

An ongoing process

This book was written in just a few sessions of just sitting down and watching the text appear on the screen.

Writing a crime novel isn’t the first time that a changing writing process has manifested itself. As a learning, evolving writer, hopefully having produced a better book each time I put down my pen, I have seen my pantsing slowly evolve into a more measured approach. I still enjoy writing best when I turn off my cognitive processes and just get to type away, reading what my fingers produce with the help of my computer’s keyboard, and reading the evolving story as it appears on the screen. While my first books, like Jonathan’s Hope or Family Ties, were written in less than two weeks each, recent books have taken a lot longer. It’s not as much “fun” anymore, as they all involve a lot of research to get things right, sometimes not just being able o rely on my previously acquired knowledge. I guess that is where writing becomes a job (not just the editing aspect.) I’ve always enjoyed certain aspects of research, especially when I get to immerse myself in something new, e.g. my trip to Korea while writing Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm, or Last Winter’s Snow, which allowed me to learn about our own First Nations here in Sweden.

The new book pushes the envelope

In Last Winter’s Snow, I had to change a chapter completely after learning more about Sami culture. After that, I was able to return to my normal writing. Mind you, before you get the impression that my stream-of-consciousness writing didn’t involve research, I have always researched things I didn’t know. I just get stuck, do the research, and continued. However, in this new book, I had to do a lot of research before even being able to get started. The first chapter shows the murderer after having gotten rid of the corpse, under a root roll. Well, turns out that wouldn’t work and I had to completely rewrite that. Also, given the surroundings here, the island, and the ocean, I had to find a way to hide the body, a motive, and how it all gets resolved in the end. After several months I finally feel that I have the contours in place. I have written bits and pieces here and there and throughout the book, but I’m far from done. Also, huge chunks are missing.

Next steps to finish the story

To write about a place you know really well has advantages, but carries risks.

To write about a place you know really well has advantages, but carries risks.

I have had to edit considerably what I had written earlier, to make sure it fits the narrative. I have, to be honest, never been a fan of deleting. It pains me to delete words, and I know colleagues who simply save any unused written text in a slash document to be able to get back to that later. I don’t do that. If I can’t use text, it’s deleted. Only once have I regretted that, deleting a really beautiful love-making scene in a book geared toward young adults. It had to go, but I wish I’d saved that.

To get the story right, I’ve had to rewrite a lot, and while I have the basic plot ready, what is left is to flesh it out and give my characters some flesh. I still feel they’re characters, not people I know. Normally, my characters become people I know, flesh and blood, and I know them intimately. I cry when they suffer, and I laugh when they goof. I’m not there yet, and there are quite a few characters in this story: there’s the murderer who I quite like so far, there’s Anna, the main character who still feels like a Pinocchio to me, more a doll than a living being. Her father Tore feels like a stranger, even though he’s central to the story, then there’s the victim, the dead person. It is important to me to do them justice. Finally, there’s this character that appears in the second chapter and who (as part of my subconscious writing) didn’t go away. He is also really important for the story, as a catalyst of sorts. So far, he’s the one who surprised me the most, and I want to do him justice.

Yet more research to be done…

What's plausible to happen on the streets here?

What’s plausible to happen on these streets?

You think I’d be done with research, but I’m not. I also have to speak to the pathologists at the police department, there’s more cultural research needed, and I wonder if I need to research into the motive (no spoilers!) Then there are the tiny questions that always need answering, sometimes it’s just a word or two in a subordinate clause that could take hours to research. I kid you not. Sometimes it’s the tiny details that need the most time to search for. Because as authors, we do not have the luxury to make mistakes. Unless TV. I just watched this fantasy story where literally dozens of slashed and slaughtered bodies were left behind by witches all over the place. While I wonder what regular humans would think finding all those corpses, the TV producers didn’t deem it necessary to answer. Authors don’t have that luxury. If we screw up, we’re called out on it, and given how hard it is to get any reviews, we certainly cannot afford those reviews to be bad…

In the end, I’ll get there! I feel confident that I’ll be able to deliver the manuscript to my publisher in time for the scheduled publication date in the spring of 2023. I hope you look forward to reading a crime novel, the way only I could write one. I’m certainly looking forward to other fun aspects of book production: layout, cover, and finding a good title, not to mention interacting with readers about it.

Hans