If the pandemic and quarantining have done anything for me, it’s forced me into some long-term organization I might not have gotten to otherwise. In the first month of lockdown, I organized my book by major topic categories, then alphabetically by author. The next day, I got stuck into some boxes of old papers and journal that hadn’t seen the light of day since the beginning of the century. I was hoping to be able to throw some things out. At a certain point, you have to start thinking about deaccessioning, rather than accumulating.
Included in the box were some long forgotten planning documents from my first published crime novel, Solo Act, reproduced below.
I was shocked to see in these, and fourteen more pages like them, that I’d spent a considerable amount of time laying out character, motivation, scene movement, action, questions and answers, and so on. At that point, apparently, I’d been what we politely refer to as a plotter.
I suppose, as a floundering newbie, I was trying to find some way to control the process of writing a novel, something I knew nothing about at the time. I am afraid to take these pages back and compare them against the published book, though, since even a quick look tells me many of the ideas never made it. The voluminous background work of 2000 and 2001 did not do much for the novel that came out in 2015.
Here’s what the plan for Elder 6, tentatively titled Mickey’s Monkey, looks like from a notebook this summer.
I’d like to think the attitude I’ve developed toward plotting—I started calling myself a pantser with the third book in the series, came from the great skill I’d developed in working out the stories in my head in advance, knowing where those half-dozen structural members would connect to make a book. But, in fact, I realized that I’d gone beyond flying by the seat of my pants to a much slower and more deliberate way of working, albeit one that doesn’t require much advance thinking.
The original idea comes from E. L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
And it is the perfect description of how my working style has evolved. Every morning now, when I sit down with my Pilot G2 and white pad, I only know where I’ve been. A few words from the day before get the story rolling again and once more, I’m driving down a pitch-black road, enticing alleys on either side, only aware of what I can see coming in the next sentence or two.
My journey from plotter to pantser to driver through the night is, for me, a belief in confidence. Those old notebook pages from 2001 are an expression of how little confidence I had in what I was doing. They represent a desparate attempt to control what I had to learn I had only minimal control over. The page from this year’s journal shows me, not that I know where the story is going, but that I have the confidence there is a story there and that I’ll arrive at its destination eventually.
It feels odd sometimes that I find more confidence in less groundwork, but if a writer knows anything, it’s that his, her, or their means of working is as unique as a sunset and hard-learned as humility. I would never prescribe for another writer. The only thing any of us can be certain of is that there is no certainty at all.