Sunday, March 25, 2012

To Plot Or Not

I confess, I'm a non-plotter. I don't plot, not really. When I begin a book I have an overall theme in mind and that's about it. I start off with a scene, maybe a murder (murder is always popular) and that triggers the next scene and so on. I have only a broad idea of the story, which writes itself around the theme as I go along. The characters have to step out of my unconscious and take the story where it needs to go. I know there will be major events along the way, but I don't know what they will be. I know the ending, in the general sense that the good guys will probably win. They may, however, win in ways not expected. The victory may be pyrrhic. But I don't know that when I begin.

There are writers who plot everything, an approach often recommended in books and articles about writing. These folks outline and develop the entire story in detail. They follow their outline and know what's going to happen before they put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Both approaches work. Both have positive and negative aspects. Both will succeed or fail based on all the indefinable skills that make up the creative process.

I tried to be a detailed plotter. It bored the hell out of me and I could never stick to it. It felt confining, artificial. I wish I could do it that way. It would make things a lot simpler.

As a non-plotter, I sometimes get in trouble. The thrillers I write demand accuracy in detail and a relentless logic to events. Things have to happen for a reason, not because a nice big explosion might be exciting. The more complicated the story, the more traps I can fall into. Because I write a series, it is inevitable that things will get more complicated. I've reached a point with the PROJECT series where I am challenged to give the reader more.

I am comfortable with the sense of when to end a chapter and how to do it. I trust my feel for the pacing of a story, so that is not a problem for me. I know when things are too slow or too fast, though that might not be apparent until revision. Since I revise as I go along, I usually catch it early.

But...I might be 20,000 words in and realize something is missing in the logical reasoning behind events. That will almost always have to do with hidden motivation that must be revealed as the story moves along. If someone is secretly watching my characters, why are they doing it? Maybe I didn't think that through enough before I stuck it in there, but now it's embedded and I must do something about it.

Being a non-plotter can come back and bite you. These days I'm working on the fourth book in the PROJECT series. I like to move my characters all over the world. It's fun for me and fun for the readers. They get to travel to places they would probably never visit, much less places where people were doing their best to kill them. I realized yesterday that I had moved my protagonists to a key place in the story far too easily. Now I have to fix it, which is moderately difficult. That happened because I did not have a detailed story line worked out. Easy moves the story, but it's a cheap shot at a reader. Readers invest time and money and deserve better.

WARNING: OPINION ALERT

Deus Ex Machina worked for Sophocles
but it won't work for you.

So where does the confession part come in? I confess, I do a sort of plotting as I go along. I start with eight or ten bullet points, ideas for the story. These may or may not end up in the book. I have a big whiteboard on the wall of my office, my primary tool to keep things straight as the story develops. I constantly put things on it, ideas, questions, possibilities. I list the names of new characters and their role, e.g., part of the Russian Security Services. If there's a hole in the logic, it will end up there until it's plugged. As I incorporate or discard those ideas, I erase them. The board is always full.

I love the freedom of not knowing how things will work out. If I can surprise myself, then I should surprise my readers. I love it when a new character appears from nowhere, driven by the logic of the story, someone I've never thought of until that moment. The real enjoyment for me of the hard work of writing comes in those moments.

It is also satisfying when the day comes that I erase that entire whiteboard and start over with the next book.

I can tear my hair out over a glaring hole in the logical development of my non-plotted story, but that becomes another opportunity to improve my writing. I wouldn't have it any other way. If you want a challenge, you might try writing from the seat of your pants. What British writers call a "pantser". It's not for everybody.

What kind of plotter are you?




Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why Write A Series?

You've probably heard all the conventional wisdom about why you might want to write a series. How you need more than one book out there. How someone who buys one book and likes it will want to read the others. In my opinion those are not the best reasons to write a series.

I write a series is because it's fun and it's challenging. I like my characters. I want to see what is going to happen to them. I don't know what's going to happen to them until I write the next chapter in their lives. If you are fond of the people you have created, you might like the challenge of a series.

A series is a lot of work. After the first book you must carry things forward in a consistent and developmental pattern. You must remember the details. You can't change things. Your characters must be alive in your mind as real people, with real histories and real interactions. All that personal history moves forward in each book. As the series progresses, your characters change in ways difficult to show in a single book. You must deal with issues seeded by the past events of the earlier books. That's the fun part. It's also the challenging part. A series gives you a wonderful platform to hone your skills as a writer.

The mechanics of writing a series is part of that skill development. It's a major hurdle. How do you create a later book in the series and still have it stand on its own, so a reader can pick it up and fall comfortably into the story without knowing what happened in the books before? How do you put in just enough back story to support the current effort? There are no guidelines. There is no handy manual to follow.

I'm not saying I've mastered the skill, no indeed. At the moment I am a quarter of the way through writing the fourth book in the PROJECT series and it's getting complicated. My protagonists now have a lot of history together and it affects everything--plot, dialogue, description--you name it. It gets even more complicated because I am the kind of writer who has only a broad idea of the details of the book when I begin. An opening scene, a theme, something exciting in the middle, the good guys probably win at the end.

Digression: Check out http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/
A great guest post on plotting by Debby Harris that I wish I had written...

There are plenty of excellent series writers out there to learn from. J.K. Rowling comes to mind. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Lee Child's Reacher books. Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series and the Harry Bosch books. Any of these writers can teach you a lot.

Reasons to write a series:

  • You have a set of characters you know and are familiar with to build on
  • You don't have to start completely anew
  • You have a built in story thread because of the prior interactions
  • You develop more skill in characterization
  • You develop organizational writing skills

Reasons you may not want to write a series:

  • You are faced with keeping readers interested in those same characters over time
  • You must have your characters change in ways consistent with all that has gone before
  • You must work with the inner psychology of your characters in ways somewhat different from a one-off story
  • Your organizational skills will be challenged
  • You are forced to dig ever deeper for originality and freshness of plot, motivation and setting

I can think of several well-known series writers (here unnamed) whose books I no longer purchase. Those writers got lazy in their success. Their books became boring and careless. They failed to maintain that freshness and originality mentioned above.

Writing a series is not for everybody, but if you love your characters you might consider it. Don't you want to know what's going to happen to them over time? Only a series gives you that freedom. Go for it, if you want a different kind of writing challenge...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Realism and Description


I received a wonderful comment this morning from a reader about my newest book, The Seventh Pillar (you can check it out by clicking on the cover picture to your left). Part of the book is set in the desert wastelands of the Western Sahara. I try to make the settings and details of my books accurate and real enough so the reader can picture him/herself right there, in this case with sand and heartless rock under their feet and heat beating down from a sky as intense and vivid as my imagination and experience can make it.

The reader had not been to the part of the desert I used in the book, but she had spent time in Saudi Arabia and she felt like she was there, with my characters, under that relentless sun and endless sky. Her comment made my day because it meant that I had succeeded in what I had tried to do, make the reader FEEL like she was THERE, where it counts.

Realism. Description. The challenge we face as writers to transport our readers to the worlds of our imagination, wherever and whatever they may be. It is unlikely my reader will ever find herself in a place where very bad people want to kill her, at least I certainly hope not. The magic of realistic description took her there.

I think one of the great challenges of story-making is knowing how much description is enough, or when it is called for. Too much, the reader goes to sleep. Too little, there is no context for the actions of the characters. It's like the three bears--too hard, too soft, just right.

Complicate that by the kind of book it is. Some books linger forever. The Naked and the Dead (remember that one?). East of Eden. The Sun Also Rises. The Grapes of Wrath. Somehow we become imbued with a sense of time and place that stays even when the details of character, plot and story become hazy. Although I hated the book (not too strong a word), The Road comes to mind. Cold Mountain. And I really like Calumet City for crime noir urban grit.

These books are as different as can be from one another in setting and intent, but they all have incredibly skilled description of time and place as a core strength.

Good description is far more than the color of the sand or the haze over the mountains. It's a sensual experience when you get it right. You hear and feel the rustle of the wind, see the ominous beauty of a desert sunset and smell the heat coming off the barren lands around you. As much as possible, all senses are involved.

WARNING: OPINION ALERT

Unless you are a Steinbeck or a Thomas Wolfe, 
exercise caution.

When I write, the draft is always full of extraneous description which must be edited down to essence, something the reader can digest and feel while the story moves on. I can wax rhapsodic about almost anything (one of the things I love about blogging is that you can get away with clich├ęs like that). But how much does a reader need?

Take a descriptive passage from whatever book you are working on out of context and open it in a new document. Read it again, out of context. Does it put you where you want the reader to be? If the reader didn't know the plot or who the characters were or what was happening, would that passage stand on its own? Does it feel real? If the answer is in doubt, perhaps you should rethink that description.

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite contemporary authors, for many reasons. Often he has his protagonist Harry Bosch standing on the deck of a precariously perched house in one of the canyons of LA. Each time, I get a new sense of the place even though I've stood on that deck with Harry through many books. Connelly doesn't need pages to make it work. He's a master of essence.

That's a challenge for all of us.

Write Like A Champion today.