Plotting: The Thirty Thousand-Foot View

D.A. Keeley here. I’m honored to be invited to write a guest post for the Maine Crime Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 12.13.17 PMWriters blog. I grew up in Readfield, lived in Presque Isle for a decade, and own a home in Old Orchard Beach. So, although I now work out of state, I consider myself a Maine Crime Writer at heart.

One more plea to be granted Mainer status: I write a series set in Aroostook County, a place close to my heart. My sleuth Peyton Cote is a single mother and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent working in the fictional town of Garrett, where Fort Fairfield would probably appear on the map.

This fall I’ve been busy. My three-book contract with Midnight Ink is up. The June 2016 Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 12.11.22 PMbook, Destiny’s Pawn, is in production, and I’m pleased that my agent reports Midnight Ink wants to continue the series. This means at least one more Peyton Cote novel. Some writers don’t want to get locked into long-term commitments. However, by day, I chair the English department at Northfield Mount Hermon School, might be the only crime fiction writer to be dorm parent to 60 teenagers, teach AP English and Crime Fiction, and serve as the assistant director of the NMH Summer School. More importantly, I’m a husband, and a dad to 17-, 14-, and 7-year-old daughters (Delaney, Audrey, and Keeley — can you guess where the pseudonym comes from?). This leaves little free time. I write from 4-6 a.m.

Due to these commitments, I don’t want to write on spec: I’m hoping for another multi-book contract — a goal that means producing a three-book series outline, a task that is far from natural to me.

I once attended a keynote address given by Jeffery Deaver who explained that he writes 100-page outlines for 300-page novels. Similarly, my friend Clyde Phillips, executive producer and writer for Dexter and other shows, creates the arc for entire TV seasons and outlines his Jane Candiotti novels in similar fashion.

Destinys PawnFor me, creating a story arc that spans three books, offers detailed plotlines, and character developments  (including — spoiler alert — a marriage and a new and recurring antagonist) is a new process. And one that is hard as hell. It’s taken all fall. I write procedural novels that revolve around a woman whose primary professional task is to protect the U.S. from acts of terror. The landscape of terrorism changes hourly, so predicting what Peyton’s life will be like two or three years from now is not easy.

Also, I’m just not wired like Deaver or Phillips. To me, writing is like driving at night. I write to the end of my headlights, see where I’m at, and drive on. Likewise, we all write the books we’d like to read. I get jazzed by compelling characters and crisp dialogue; plot is always secondary. So creating a plot line and character arcs for what amounts to 1,200+ pages isn’t, as my grandmother in Augusta used to say, my cup of tea. Prior to this fall, my “outlines” only consisted of character sketches, detailed backstories and motivations for the book’s major players. The subsequent composing process meant taking those characters, putting them on the stage, giving them one or more conflicts, and seeing what they do.

The three-book outline is now finished and off to my publisher for review, and my fingers are crossed. The work was hard but valuable. Beginning with a story arc and outlining are new strategies for me — and a lot more work up front. But, if I can execute the plots well, the books should be fast-paced and tight.

I’m rolling the dice and betting on plotting, hoping that starting with a thirty thousand-foot view will make for better mysteries.

As D.A. Keeley, John Corrigan was a 2015 Maine Literary Award finalist.


D.A. Keeley is John R. Corrigan and K.A. Delaney and the author of nine novels. Most recently, Keeley is author of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote series, set along the Maine-Canada border. Bitter Crossing (2014) was a Maine Literary Award finalist. It was followed by Fallen Sparrow (2015). Destiny’s Pawn will be published in June 2016. Keeley was born in Augusta, Maine, and lives with his wife and three daughters at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts, where he is English department chair. A Mainer through and through, he tries to get to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, as often as possible. You can see what he’s up to by or on Twitter (@DAKeeleyAuthor).


This entry was posted in Guest Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Plotting: The Thirty Thousand-Foot View

  1. Karla says:

    Good luck with your contract search. ‘Writing to the end of your headlights’ is the best analogy.

  2. We work somewhat similarly, John, though I write by night, not in the early morning. It’s great Midnight Ink wants to continue the series – congratulations on that! I’ll look forward to the news that you have another three-book deal.

  3. Heidi Wilson says:

    I’m doing a mini-version of this murderous task: trying to untangle a first draft in which I drove by headlight while outlining in detail a follow-up book. The outlining is so hard that the only thing that keeps me at it is the fact that untangling is harder!

  4. Congratulations on the extension with your publisher, John! And thanks for sharing your experience. I went the pantser route with my first book (character sketches and main/secondary characters’ backstories only). All went well until about the 6o,000-word mark, at which point I found myself plodding. My new motto: “Better to plot than plod.” I can pretty well promise that book #2 will be plotted before pen is taken to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

  5. Well, I’ll have to check out your work, since I grew up in the County. Also now living out of state, but got my Maine Writer creds official now- from the Maine State Library! Best of luck with the series.

  6. Pat Turnbull says:

    Fascinating article John, not so much for the overall topic but for the mention of Northfield/Mt. Hermon. Many many years ago, my maternal grandmother (born in 1881) attended Northfield, and when she lived with my family in Portland during my teen-age years, she went to monthly Northfield alumna meetings. And one of my cousins attended Mt. Hermon. Hadn’t thought of the schools in years!

Leave a Reply