Thursday, August 27, 2009

Plotting: A Battle between Good (the Subconscious) and Evil (the Editor)

In a correspondence several years ago, I asked Robert B. Parker how much of his plot he knew before beginning his (then) latest novel. He explained that he knew only who would enter Spenser’s office and what that character would say when he walked through the door. That’s all he knew. Similarly, a different Edgar Award-winning author, S.J. Rozan, speaking on a panel at the Left Coast Crime Conference, recalled the adage, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” when asked how much of her plot she knew before starting her novels. And there is Raymond Carver’s famous revelation upon discovering that Flannery O’Connor usually didn’t know where her stories were headed before she began. “When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion,” Carver wrote in his essay “A Storyteller’s Notebook” (New York Times, 1981). “I thought this was my uncomfortable secret.”

Before I began writing my first published novel, Cut Shot, around 1997, I created a 17-page outline. Writing the outline was a painstaking process, and in it I included everything—dialogue, plot twists, and character traits. I even wrote the book’s final scene first, ala Agatha Christie, to give me a target to write toward. Then I started writing the book in earnest. Confidently.

Except then something unexpected happened. The unexpected happened, about 50 pages into my story.

I was terrified at first. As a writing instructor, I knew the importance of prewriting and planning. What was going on here? What was this story trying to do to me? I eventually went in that new direction, concluding that this unforeseen plot development actually improved the novel. This realization was a little scary. I feared that deviating from my outline would mean giving up some control over my story, a control I had worked hard to achieve. Creating my outline had meant forcing the subconscious writer in my head—that happy-go-lucky storyteller who always whistles a tune and smiles—to work some long, hard hours with his roommate—the hacksaw-wielding editor who hates whistling and doesn’t much care for his roommate. During the months it took me to write my outline, I had locked the two of them in a room together. Could the storyteller work independently from the editor? And could he—dare I even say it?—work even more effectively on his own?

I worried that if I stepped away from my outline I would not only sacrifice my sense of control, but that I would subsequently lose the confident voice in which my outline allowed me to write. In the end, I wrote 11 drafts of Cut Shot anyway. Many more unforeseen changes occurred, and they made the book much better than it would have been had I forced the novel to conform to the original notion I had for it.

I no longer create formal outlines, and the amount of pre-writing I do depends on the project. For a recent bio-terrorism book, I researched for three months before writing a word. For the novel I’m writing now, I started the way Parker mentioned—I envisioned a character at his desk reading the obituaries when an ex-lover enters his office and makes a statement that immediately poses an external conflict for the sleuth. Now, my “outlines” usually resemble the one-paragraph description that appears on the back of a paperback. And when I finish a novel, there are usually 30 or so unused pages saved in a file named “Extras”—scenes I wrote and later cut as I revised.

Charles, in his Aug. 21 blog “Taking Direction,” wrote something that has stayed with me: “…foresight provides an added sense of confidence to my writing and I believe readers can feel it too.” I believe every professional writer achieves this level of confidence in his or her prose. However, we all get to it differently. For me, it is always finding a balance between the whistling storyteller and that tie-wearing editor who calls all his bluffs.


Charles benoit said...

"...a balance between the whistling storyteller and that tie-wearing editor who calls all his bluffs."

Well said, John. Not just what you say but how you phrased it.

BTW- my wife read my post about advance planning and 'knowing the road before you start' - she says she doesn't know where I got the idea that that's what I do, reminding me of all the mid-story panics and loooong walks I take to work out plot points. Hmmm, was it just wishful thinking?

Charles benoit said...

Geeze, John, you really got me thinking with this one. As I rode in to work I thinking about how I write and now I'm wondering if I have any real clue at all as to how I do it. I thought I knew - and I've written on this blog site many times about I did it - but now, thanks to you and Donis' earlier post, and things Debby and Rick and Vicki have said since, I don't know anymore.

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