At RT one year, I sat on a panel with other thriller writers. One fellow author was shocked that I don’t plot. He was even more surprised when I told him that I didn’t know what was going to happen in the book I was writing at the time.
Thriller writers tend to be plot driven and for most of them, not having a roadmap—at least of the basic plot points—can be paralyzing. But thriller and mystery writers aren’t the only people out there who can be anal plotters. Take the fabulous Suzanne Brockmann, who writes romantic suspense.
I took an online class from her in December of 2003 about writing connected stories (as opposed to a series.) I had just sent out THE PREY to agents, including several who were reading the full manuscript, and I was very excited because I’d never had so many request the complete with my first four manuscripts.
I was stunned when she shared with the class that she was a plotter. Not only a plotter, but an uber-plotter—she had 100 page outlines before she even started writing the book! She admitted that it takes her longer to outline the book than it does to write it. She had color-coded notebooks, multi-book character arcs and subplots, and all these were clearly labeled.
I thought to myself, “If this is what it takes to get published, I’ll never be published.”
If I was told I had to write a detailed outline before someone would buy a book, I would very likely stop writing for publication. I’d rather write the entire book first, then create an outline.
I do not know where my story is going when I start. I do not know where it is going to end. I know who the hero and heroine are. (Most of the time—twice I’ve been wrong.) I know the basic crime. I don’t always know why, I don’t usually know the villain or if I do, I don’t know why. I don’t know who’s going to live to the last page or who is going to die. Well, except for the hero and heroine because I write romantic suspense and they kind of have to survive, or it wouldn’t be romantic suspense.
Getting to the end is half the fun of writing. Finding out what happens is thrilling. If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write the book. It’s enough to know that my hero and heroine are going to live, and the bad guy is going to get what’s coming to him.
To quote Stephen King. “Why be such a control freak? The story is going to end up somewhere.”
This isn’t to say that all thriller or mystery writers are plotters or all romance writers are organic storytellers. It’s just that I think aspiring thriller writers think they need to have a structure and detailed outline before they write because of the complexity of most thriller plots.
I’m here to tell you that no, you don’t have to.
You CAN if you want to. I’m not going to tell anyone NOT to plot their story just like I’m not going to tell anyone they HAVE to write organically. Our brains are wired differently and one thing I learned early on is that no one can tell anyone else the best way FOR THEM to write a story.
I have a workshop I’ve presented a few times called “No Plotters Allowed: Solutions to Writer’s Block for Those Who Can’t, Won’t or Don’t Plot.”
I’m thinking of renaming the subtitle of the workshop to “The Subconscious Writer.”
I’m deep into writing currently untitled Lucy Kincaid #1. Friday night I was stuck. I had everything set up and I started writing what I thought was the next scene, but it just wasn’t working. Something felt off to me. (Organic writers tend to “feel” problems in the story. I know, it’s sounds all wishy-washy and stupid, but it is what it is. And I really hate the word “pantzer.”) I put the book aside and started working on a title. My title had been rejected (NO WAY OUT) and I didn’t like what my editor came up with, then I submitted another title, which they liked but didn’t feel was right, so it’s back to the drawing board. (Aside: Lucy #1 is coming out in January of 2011, and Lucy #2 is coming out in March 2011. Lucy #2 has a title—we think. It’s not approved yet. So I was trying to match the rhythm of that title.) I scoured my thesaurus and bookshelves, pulling out words that have some relation to the story.
Betrayal. Bait. Stop. Tempt. Lose. Lure. Love. Murder. Kill. Dying. Death. Trap. Shoot. Ruin. Entrap. Chase. Thrill. See. Touch. Watch. Predator. Web. Seduce. Snare. Break. Fear. Retribution. Stalk.
That’s about 10% of my list of words. Then I moved to phrases, which may or may not be title-esque. Cry Me a River. Dying Breath. Taking the Heat. Don’t Look Back. No Time to Run. No Way Out. Edge of Danger. Web of Lies. Over Her Dead Body.
Again, that’s just a small fraction of what I had written on seven sheets of notebook paper.
Then I went to bed.
Saturday morning I woke up with not only a title (actually, four good titles that all have the same basic foundation) but I’d solved my story problem!
When I was stuck Friday night, as I often do I skimmed what I had already written. This is bad for me because I usually start editing as I go and that takes time, and often sends my story in new directions. (At least when you’re on a tight deadline, it’s bad.) But since I’d already edited the beginning of this book to death, it was tight and I wasn’t doing major editing, just small tweaks here and there. So when I went to bed, I had the whole story in my head, as well as a couple hundred words and phrases swimming around.
I realized when I woke up that I had the solution already written in the book. I didn’t have to fix anything, it was already there. It was as if my subconscious had the story down even when I didn’t know it.
I thought Character A was watching Lucy out of a sense of paternal protection, and even though he’s a bad guy, he didn’t want to hurt her. He was more worried about her.
It’s not Character A at all! I realized that in two specific places in the story before the midpoint, Lucy had the distinct impression of being watched. But she has a fear of being watched, and knows this about herself, and thus has learned to dismiss the sensations because they happen whenever she’s in public.
My husband thinks I’m very strange. I told him that I was excited because the guy I thought was watching Lucy really isn’t, it’s this other guy who I didn’t even know about but he’s been there all along! Seriously, I had two scenes where he was there and I didn’t even know. When I re-read them this morning, it was so damn obvious you’d think that I’d planned it out. Dan said, “But these are your characters. You’re the writer, you tell them what to do.”
Um, no. When I start telling my characters what to do, they put on the brakes.
My editor is sometimes amused with me, I think. I always do a round of revisions. Always. Even if the book is pretty tight, I always go through it with editorial notes. Virtually every book I’ve written has a completely different ending than the first manuscript. My editor likes this because she feels like she’s reading a completely new story. Most people think I’m insane because I essentially write every book twice. But I don’t see how I can do it any other way. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work for me.
Yesterday, Alex commented about fast writers and swore at me (in her loving, kind and non-judgmental way, of course!) I’m not a fast writer. I’m a subconscious writer. I’m writing 24/7, just not always at my computer. I run through dialogue in the car (when I’m alone—thank God for hands free phones because people think I’m talking to someone else and not myself!) I play the what if game. I think about my characters and how they would react to different situations. When I’m sitting down actually writing, I write fast, but the physical writing is only a small part of the writing process.
In a way, I suppose this is plotting. (Shiver.) But 99% of the time I don’t write down that verbal dialogue I played with. I don’t use a plot point that came to my head playing what if? I don’t put my characters in situations where I know what they’ll do—or, they’ll do something completely different because of a factor I hadn’t considered.
Every writer I’ve talked to has lamented their process. I tend to freak out near deadline when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I write frantically, excited to finally know how it’s going to turn out, and hoping I don’t get stuck. I usually know who the bad guy is, but sometimes even I’m surprised.
And that, for me, is half the fun of writing.
Over at Murder She Writes on Thursday, I posted a short story I wrote called “Ghostly Vengeance” that was printed in a the Walmart “Book of the Month” selection printing of ORIGINAL SIN. I finally got permission to post it on my website (it’ll be up at Seven Deadly Sins Books later this week, but I wanted to give my blog readers an early preview.) Hope you enjoy it!
And no, I didn’t plot it out or know what was going to happen. In fact, when they asked me to write a short story with the ORIGINAL SIN main characters, my editor asked what I’d write. I said, “How about a ghost story?”
Then I wrote it.