Monday, September 26, 2011

O is for Orloff: Alan Orloff

Today I continue the crime fiction writer alphabet meme with O if for Orloff: Alan Orloff,  guest for the letter "O"!

Alan Orloff is the author of DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD, an Agatha Award Finalist, and the Last Laff Mystery series (KILLER ROUTINE and the upcoming DEADLY CAMPAIGN), all from Midnight Ink. When he’s not writing, he’s obsessing about his writing. For more info, visit his website:


A few days ago, I handed in my tenth completed manuscript to my agent (or was it my eleventh? I’ve lost track). You’d think it would get easier and easier to write a novel.

Judging from my experience, you’d be wrong.

Of course, some things are easier. The actual writing of the prose has gotten easier, I think. Over the years—thanks to lots of diligent practice and some sterling feedback from my critique groups—I’ve developed my writing muscles (for the record, I have not used any performance enhancing drugs and I’m willing to take a test to prove it!).

I believe the “structuring” part of the process has gotten easier, too. Not that I use a blueprint or template or anything, but I don’t seem to incorporate as many useless scenes or go off on as many tangents as I once did (but there was this guy I knew in Syracuse back in the Eighties who…never mind).

Unfortunately, many things haven’t gotten any easier. Creating compelling characters? Still hard. Devising a killer plot, with the requisite twists and turns? Still hard. Making sure the timeline and the subplots and the clues and the climax all work out seamlessly? Yeah, still pretty hard.

But the most difficult thing of all?

Riding the emotional roller-coaster. Here are the stages I go through:

Idea Stage: Excitement – You’ve settled on an idea, and the more you think about it, the more you’re convinced it’s a winner. You can’t wait to outline it so you can get to writing it so you can begin to accumulate those awesome reviews and start shopping for vacation villas.

Outlining Stage: Confusion – Questions pop up like toadstools after a storm. Who is really the main protagonist? How many love interests are needed? Did people actually say “the cat’s pajamas” in the Forties? And what’s the deal with those space aliens trying to take over the world in the climactic scene anyway?

Beginning of the First Draft: Temporary insanity – You wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into as you stare at the blinking cursor on the blank page. Writing a book? Impractical. Impossible. Insane. Who do you think you are, Snooki?

Underway: Uneasy confidence – You’ve gotten some words down on the page. They’re not great, but hey, that’s what revision is all about, right? And thank goodness for spellcheck!

Middle of the First Draft: Hopelessness – Nothing is going well. Nothing makes sense. Your characters have staged a mutiny and you’re convinced your writing stinks. No, really, it stinks. Absolutely. You’re not just saying it because you’re frustrated, it really stinks. Truly. It’s about the most putrid thing you’ve ever seen on paper. You call yourself a writer? You STINK!

Still Mired in the Middle: Continued hopelessness – You check out looking for a less stressful job. What, there’s no such position as Corporate Novelist?

Completion of the First Draft: Cautious Optimism – After some spirited mud wrestling bouts, you were able to tame those nagging doubts and slog through to the finish. Once you type, “THE END,” though, you decide to let it marinate for a few days, so at least you’ll have a little while to enjoy your vacation on the planet Delusionia.

The Reality Sets In Stage: Resignation - You take a deep breath and realize—finally—that you’ve done this before. Successfully. So you roll your sleeves up and grit your teeth, knowing the hard work is just beginning. And you’re ready for it.

Knowing if what I’ve written is good or…well, less than good. During the first draft, I’ll usually know where I stand. The manuscript bites. And with each pass of the revision wand, I know my work is improving. At least for the first three or four times. Then things begin to get murky.

One day, I’ll look at a particular scene and think I’ve nailed it. The next day, I’ll reread the same scene and think what a steaming pile it is. Same scene! And if my opinions are so wildly variable, what good are they? Will I ever be able to tell if my writing is any good?

The short answer: nope.

So what’s a writer to do (aside from developing better judgment)?

Get help. That’s why critique groups and beta readers were invented (and to pump up the red pen industry). After they read my manuscript, I know where the soft spots are.


Barb Goffman said...

Alan, let me know the next time you're heading for Delusiona. I'll join you. I could use a vacation, and this place sounds great!

jenny milchman said...

"Who do you think you are, Snooki?" is the best line I've read all week. I know it's only Monday. But still.

Interesting progression of your process, Alan!

Alan Orloff said...

Barb - Sorry, but the shuttle to the planet Delusionia is full (it's a very popular destination). Maybe a seat will open up next month.

Jenny - Thanks, Jenny. You're right, tho, the week is still young!

Nancy Lauzon said...

I really enjoyed your post. It gives me comfort to know other writers suffer as much as I do. We're all crazy in the head to do this. But at times it's all worth it.

Robin Templeton said...

Thanks, Alan. I'm in the middle of a rewrite now and this is exactly the kind of whimwhamming I've been going through. I'm going to print your column and hang it in my office to remind myself it's a PROCESS that even the best writers go through. ('Cause I think you're pretty darned good, no matter WHAT your head is telling you today!)

Alan Orloff said...

Thanks, Nancy. Always nice to have company suffering!

Nora McFarland said...

It's funny how we all suffer through this in the same ways. It makes me feel better about spending so much time in the continued-hopelessness stage.
Great post!