Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Getting from A to Z without a map

Today, I decided to blog about the mysterious process of creating a plot. Vicki's post on getting stuck and Donis' description of antique plumbing got me thinking. A lucky stroke of creative synergy that solved my writer's block of 'What am I going to blog about this time?'.

I'm not a big fan of how-to-write books, nor of doing what I'm told, so I happily ignore the advice about making a detailed outline first. 'How can you start on your journey if you don't know where you're going?' insist the how-to books. My answer - easily. I just find the car, turn on the engine, and put her in gear. Once I have a vague idea what I want to write about and I have the idea for the opening scene, I'm off. As I finish that scene, usually the next one comes to me, sometimes three or four down the road. It's not driving blind; it's more like driving in the dark with headlights; you can't see far ahead, you can't see what's around the bend, but you can see far enough ahead to keep driving. When you reach a blind curve, you can't see a thing and fear you have no idea where you're going, but suddenly, the twist opens up a whole new stretch of road.

This is a terrifying, exhilarating, adventurous way to write, full of unexpected twists and puzzles. I don't know whodunit, so it's as entertaining and puzzling for me as it is for my sleuth, and I hope for the reader. Not knowing where I'm going means that I don't know if I'm ever going to get there. Will this book tie together? Will I ever find the right ending? It's not efficient; I take wrong turns and end up in dead ends, with no way to move the story forward so I have to backtrack. It means wasted pages and multiple rewrites. It means clues, red herrings, and connecting threads have to be inserted in later revisions. The end result that is submitted to my editor may appear smooth, with an intricate and seamless plot, but believe me, the first draft is chaos.

I don't recommend this approach to everyone. Writers have to find the technique that works for them. My imagination flows best once I'm writing. Outlines would be a waste of time for me, because I'd no sooner get to Chapter Two than a better idea would occur to me. However, I'm not entirely without a road map. In the back of my mind at all times are those basics of good storytelling - tension, conflict, pacing, uniqueness, and engaging characters. I also have some other guidelines by virtue of writing a police series. After eight books, I have a familiar cast of characters whose foibles and reactions I know well, and I have the routines of police procedure to fall back on if I don't know what to do next. The fingerprint guy can always report in, or someone can go talk to the next of kin. What would they find out? Who knows, but it will come to me in the process. As Rick said, sometimes this is the time to throw in the unexpected, and see what's around the next bend.

You may be wondering - so where does Donis' antique plumbing fit in to this plot process? In the rituals I follow when I sit down to create. I use the approach I used when I first began writing, back in the dinosaur era. I curl up in a chair with some pleasant drink at my elbow, my yellow note pad in my lap and a ballpoint pen. Then I write long-hand. The result is an almost indecipherable, scratched out mess of a manuscript filled with arrows and brackets and 'insert heres'. But like my plots, it all tidies up nicely on the rewrites. These are done the way they should be - on the computer. Am I alone, or do others enjoy this 'fly by the seat of your pants' approach?

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