Tuesday, April 22, 2014


If you’ve hung around Type M for enough time, you’ll know that my story plotting style falls into the seat-of-the-pants camp. Doing a plot outline or chapter-by-chapter analysis of what a novel’s plot will be seems far too much like “homework” to me. If a publisher wants one of these beasts I will certainly hop to it, but it’s with much (silent) grumbling on my part.

For me, there is a lot of delight in creating some characters, supplying a scenario, and letting them get down to it. I know that this far more “out of control” writing style would send those more-organized writers racing to the medicine cabinet for their store of valium, but there’s something exhilarating about “sitting back” and watching characters come to life and tell their stories.

The thing with this approach is that it can become very messy. Yes, I do have some touch points in mind for my plot to follow, usually not much more than a beginning scenario, a mid-point where I’ll need to be, and generally an idea of what the climax/solution to the mystery will be. Beyond that, I have shockingly little idea of what may or may not happen.

After ten completed novels – and three aborted projects – I have come up with ways around this chaotic method of writing. Too often, I’ve gone down blind alleys, come up against a brick wall and been forced to sit, sometimes for weeks, wondering where it all went wrong. (This is generally where I go out for long walks with my characters, trying to figure out what they want to do – as opposed to what I need them to do. It’s all a bit surreal.) Eventually, we figure it out, I usually lose a few chapters, and off we go in a new direction towards an end we still can’t see very clearly.

To those of you who say I should try outlining or synopsifyzing (who cares if that’s a real word or not?), I have. Orca likes their proposals laid out this way. I can certainly see the strengths in organizing a story before picking up one’s pen in earnest, but the most recent publication I did for them, The Boom Room, had a very odd thing happen to it at the last moment. I was literally two chapters from the end (I knew it was the penultimate one because my chapter synopsis told me so) when my plot sat up and bit me in the butt. The solution I’d submitted to my editor was all wrong. The bad guy didn’t do it after all. All the pointing I’d done throughout the plot went towards the wrong character. He was innocent! (Well, not really, but he didn’t do the crime that was central to the plot.)

The result was me having to return to the beginning, changing things up throughout the plot to reflect the new ending, then completely reworking the climax of the story, and finish off by adding an additional two chapters to make it all work out correctly. But wait! Wasn’t I supposed to be sticking to the agreed-upon plot synopsis I’d handed in to get the proposal accepted? What would my editor (who also happens to be Orca’s boss) say about this sea change to what he’d purchased?

As it turned out, not a heck of a lot. I didn’t mention what happened, and neither did he. I’m certain he didn’t read my completed ms with the chapter synopsis beside it on his desk, cross-checking one against the other. He just read through my creation, decided he liked what I’d done, and then we worked in the usual way, polishing the prose, expunging errors and typos, and finally sending the result off to the printer.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say here is that “life will find a way” (to quote the mathematician character in Jurassic Park). Writers can plot and plan and try to stick rigidly to their copious notes, but we must be prepared for characters to heave a spanner in the works at any time, completely changing the direction of our carefully planned plots to their own ends.

And that’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

By the way, today is a two-blog day for me. I also have an interview up on Steven Buechler’s blog. If you can stand more of me, drop by for a read!


Irene Bennett Brown said...

I follow the synopsis/character sketches/outline route, but enjoyed knowing about your seat-of-the-pants experience. Yes, it's cool!

Rick Blechta said...

To my mind, Irene, we need to find what works for us. Obviously, there's more than one way to skin a story. There certainly are times where I wish my brain worked differently than it does.