Sandra Neily here:
I can’t believe I left my novel’s plot map in the Maine Medical Center. But there it is. Or was.
I have a distinct memory of sticking my notes and plot map into my bag. I knew I wouldn’t be alert for a while (understatement for open-heart surgery), but I thought after a few days I could reread the notes and refresh my brain. I’d done some good imaginary work about how to grow chapters I’d written into the rest of the mystery. I took notes on my ideas. I made a map of the up and down rhythms I hoped to create on the way to the story’s climax.
I thought I could outwit the legendary brain fog that hangs around for a few months after major surgery.
Silly me. Clearly, I was not alert enough to make sure my notes didn’t get cleared away with the day’s buildup of food trays on my window sill. (That’s just a guess, but it makes sense.)
Maybe the loss is an exacting muse telling me I should reimagine lots of the book anyway. Kind of a fresh start.
I took inventory. I had six chapters I liked. I had a short summary I liked. (Unfinished … but it was a start.) I had old chapter notes with margins full of details that I’d saved for later use: floating details that I trusted to find a home as I typed. Details like a freezer full of beef bones my narrator begged for her dog but intended for soup during unemployment.
I already knew I was a blend of both pantser and plotter: a writer who plans out plot directions but who also just lets the story and characters careen away into unexpected directions that feel so good, my fingers aren’t fast enough on the keys. I figure the pantser part of me will come in handy going forward.
Here’s a good way to think about these two strategies. J.K.Rowling is a plotter; Stephen King is a pantser.
In the spirit of the struggle to give birth to our books, I’m sharing other authors’ strategies as well as the ones I am recreating … now that my brain is feeling great again.
Here’s my draft plot summary for the next “Deadly” story.
Cassandra Patton Conover, weak from a six-month recuperation in Portland, arrives home at her woods cabin only to fall through melting spring ice with her dog Pock. Life gets complicated when her snowshoes snag a body under the water, she finds her backyard woods littered with No Trespassing signs and surveillance cameras, and bewildered wildlife seeks safety near her camp. Squinting in disgust, she realizes her neighbor’s billboard advertising sprawling lot development actually resembles the spidery X-rays that mapped her out-of-control cancer cells. She plots a woods cure against impossible odds. With the help of her dog, wild creatures of all sizes, and a game warden who cannot turn away from Patton or the looming loss of his ancestral lands, she … (well, I haven’t written the end yet …)
And now that the fog’s outside my brain and the lake is skiable …. onward!
(I am so grateful to the amazing Maine Medical team who, despite the pandemic, offered so many of us stunning and generous care.)
Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” was published in 2021. Her third “Deadly” is due out in 2022. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s website.