The Mystery of Novel Writing

Guest Author: Keith McCafferty

keith 1This afternoon, while sitting on a folding chair on a footbridge along the Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, I wrote “The End” to my fourth novel in the Sean Stranahan detective series.  I’ve not yet settled on a title, though the setting is Montana’s Crazy Mountains and it’s hard to pass up using the word.  Lost in the Crazies, Deep In The Crazies, A Killing In The Crazies, any — the most apt would be the first, for I certainly was lost for a long time writing it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that writing a novel is like setting sail for a distant land. You can see as far as the horizon, and that will get you a few chapters in, and at a certain point you’ll smell land or a shorebird will perch on your mast, and you’ll be able to see the end and work toward it with a sense of excitement — say over the novel’s last four chapters. It’s those 250 or so pages in between when you’re lost at sea, sharks circling, and no stars to take a bearing, that separate those who wish to write novels from those who actually do.  

Sometimes I think a novelist’s greatest gift is not the poetry of language or the facility of narrative, but the stubbornness that keeps him or her at helm. That, and the faith that there’s land on the other side.

The hope is that it gets easier as you gain experience, but I haven’t found that to be the case. I recently had the privilege to share a stage at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Phoenix with Nevada Barr, who has been a big promoter of my work and is one of my favorite authors. I asked Nevada, who just published her 18th book in the Anna Pigeon series, “Destroyer Angel,” if it ever got easier, and she said, “Honey, don’t you wish?”  She’s a hoot, that Nevada. If you’d like to see a podcast of our event, I’m the one in the reindeer socks. Go to

Now I do think you can get better over time, and that is its own problem, because to get better you have to shoot higher. In this way, your critical eye improves at least apace of your ability, insuring that your goal will always be beyond your grasp. As a novelist, you are constantly failing up.

This begs a question often asked of writers. “What is your bestIMG_4391 book?” Or as some say, “What is your favorite” or “Which was most fun to write?” The standard answer to all of them is the “The one I’m working on now.” I used to think it was a cop out, but that was before I’d written novels. The truth is you say the last book because the ones that came before it are fading memories. The publishing process tends to kill them, or rather kill your ability to take any further joy in them. That’s because it takes so long and the book keeps coming back to haunt you. Now writing isn’t exactly fun at the best of times and I am suspicious, or maybe envious, of those authors who smile secretly as they compose their stories. But it is engaging, interesting and satisfying — that is, during the original composition, during the first rewrite, and even during the second rewrite when you incorporate your editor’s suggestions. But that’s only the beginning, because you have copy editing on a track changes version, you have first pass pages, then second pass pages, you settle on a title, you consult with the art designer on the cover (in my case, I tie the trout flies for the artist to refer to as he designs the jackets), you rewrite the inside flap copy, you send in author photos, you write study questions for the soft cover version — you get my message. By the time the book comes to the door as an advance reader’s copy a couple months before the pub date, you really don’t want to open the package. To say your current work is your best is perhaps only to say that it is the one you haven’t yet got sick of.

But that doesn’t fairly answer these questions, and they are worthy of thoughtful answers. My most fun book was the first, “The Royal Wulff Murders.” That’s because I wanted to create a cast of colorful characters I’d enjoy hanging around with, and bringing them to life was my secret thrill, as well as an escape from my day job as the Survival and Outdoor Skills editor of Field & Stream. Also because there was no pressure. My favorite book is the second, “The Gray Ghost Murders,” for several reasons, not the least of which because writing it was so memorable.  That summer I undertook the rearing of four baby blackbirds and wrote in my backyard under a sun umbrella, having to hop up every fifteen minutes to feed open mouths.  Later, after the birds had become the terror of the neighborhood, they would perch on my hat as I wrote, and when they flew south that fall, I had finished the book. That novel also came closest to fulfilling the vision I had before setting pen to paper. That Oprah’s Book Club chose it as “One of 5 New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down” was the icing on the cake. In my naivety, I thought maybe I’d turned a corner with that book and I’d have the same sure hand with the next one. That didn’t happen.  “Dead Man’s Fancy” was far more complex and difficult to write. I wasn’t even certain who was who for the longest time. Nonetheless, I think it is my best book, and so have many readers and critics. 

As for the novel I just completed, it is the most ambitious to date, but beyond that, I really don’t know. An author is not always the best judge of his work. It’s a mysterious calling, this fiction writing, a risky endeavor with no sure outcome. The only thing I can tell you for a fact is that the sea is wide, and you’re going to want to jump. Good things come to those who don’t.

 Author Bio:

Keith McCafferty is the Outdoor Skills and Survival Editor of Field & Stream, a recipient of the Traver Award for angling literature, and has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award. His first novel, “The Royal Wulff Murders,” was a Book of the Month Club and Mystery Guild selection and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Keith was one of three finalists for the High Plains Award For the Novel, along with Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford and National Book Award recipient Louise Erdrich. Keith’s second novel, “The Gray Ghost Murders,” was selected by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club as one of the “5 Addictive New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down.” His third book in the series featuring Montana artist/fishing guide/private detective Sean Stranahan, is “Dead Man’s Fancy,” released in hardcover by Viking/Penguin Books in January 2014. It also received a red star review from Publisher’s Weekly. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Keith McCafferty’s Books:

the gray ghost murders the royal wolf murders ff

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