I’ve been at this business of learning to write for sixty-one years or four years, depending on how you count. I keep learning and losing the same old things and find myself spending more time scratching my head than writing.
The divide between “pantsers” and “plotters” is a prime area where I keep going in circles, learning something (maybe) on each circle, but coming back to the same undefined and confused spots. Sometimes I feel like I’m being asked to take sides in a shooting war. Writers like Stephen King and Lee Child demand that I join their side and never, ever outline a thing. On the other side, there’s a stack of writing books that will teach me to carefully plot my book so that the book will just write itself and I won’t have to listen to those pesky characters who want to take my book in different directions.
When I wrote my first book I enlisted firmly in the “plotter” camp. I had a perfectly good outline for my first book, I really did. Fifty-two chapters neatly laid out in an Excel spreadsheet. Worked fine until chapter four. Then, there was this girl (a lot of stories start out with that line). She was supposed to look over my POV character’s shoulder in a coffee shop and say, “That looks like writing.” He was supposed to angrily slam his computer shut, and the scene would move on.
Fortunately or not, in real life I’m married to and obsessed with a girl who won’t shut up that easily. Perhaps because of that, the girl (Marci) in the book wouldn’t shut up either. She took over the scene. And the next one.
I spent the afternoon tearing up my nice, neat outline, and drawing up another one. The next morning when I was writing, Marci (joined now by my POV, Josh, who learned from Marci that it was fun to play torment-the-writer) ripped up my outline again and gleefully ran off in their own direction. I got to spend my afternoon (which I had planned to spend doing something relaxing in the back yard involving a hammock and a cold adult beverage) rebuilding my outline.
And so it went. Every day, I gave them my clear, dewy morning, bright with the promise of well-defined work. Every day, they ripped up the plans and took away my afternoons. My refrigerator overflowed with unopened cold drinks. I don’t know if there was conflict between the characters in my book (another one of those writing things that I keep learning and unlearning), but there sure as hell was conflict between the writer and the characters.
Eventually, I brought Marci and Josh to an end and sent them off to torment agents and publishers instead of me. An early agent said he liked the writing and the concept, but it had too many weird digressions. Imagine that. Ninety-nine other agents said little or nothing.
At Killer Nashville 2011, I met a bubbly, intense woman named Deni Dietz who was looking for books for Five Star Mysteries. She read Josh Whoever and agreed to publish it (no, I did not bribe her with my overflowing refrigerator of cold adult beverages. And that’s the story we’re both sticking to.)
Josh Whoever is coming out the first of April, 2013. Library Journal named it the Debut Mystery of the Month, and gave it a starred review. Imagine that.
So I’m a non-combatant in the war between the pantsers and the plotters. I’ve got to have an outline to start in the morning, or I’ll just stare into space. But I know that, if I’m lucky, the book belongs to my characters and I just get to type it.
And hopefully get back to my hammock some day
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)