Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing in the Moment

I've been working on a new series with a plot that seems to grow more complicated every time I start typing. At first I thought I had the basic idea worked out--who the murderer was, the motive, the mode of investigation, and the back story that would fill out the novel. I worry every few days over whether or not the story will be long enough, or complicated enough, to satisfy the discerning mystery reader. I worry I'll be left with a ho-hum novella. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's not working out that way.

I am not someone who can outline a plot and write from the outline. I've read plenty of how-to books that recommend this, especially for a first novel, and for several years I even felt like I'd never get anywhere if I didn't learn to outline. Of course, I was writing and publishing the entire time I was lamenting my inability to outline. But still, this seemed like such a good idea--so practical and goal-oriented, and recommended by very successful writers that I really felt I should master this skill. Writers who work from outlines can use one to produce a summary or a synopsis on demand, find exactly the right place to add a clue or complication, and can always tell the editor waiting for the final draft where they are in the story and what to expect as the writer moves forward. In the end, however, I gave up trying to learn this technique, and I remain in awe of those writers who have mastered it. But I'd rather have a root canal than compose an outline and follow it.

For me, writing a novel or short story is a process of discovery. I have to be in the story, living each scene and discovering connections between characters and events from their past as I go along. By the time I reach the end of the first draft, the identify of the murderer has changed three or four times--it's amazing to me the number of characters I create in any one book who are capable of murder and make quite reasonable villains. The victim doesn't change, but his or her character deepens, and I learn more about who he or she is and how this person could do something that would inspire murder.

By the time I'm two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I have so many clues and loose ends to tie up that I worry I have made the story too complicated, perhaps needlessly so, and won't be able to finish it. This is when I start thinking about whittling down the number of characters, perhaps combining two minor characters into one and making this composite more interesting or effective. If the novel feels it has gotten away from me, that's all right. I'm willing to let the book have a life of its own--as long as I can steer it to a satisfying conclusion. And of course, I have to have faith that I can steer it anywhere.

I liken my technique to the experience of a vacation. I don't expect the same experience twice even if I visit the same place twice. Life doesn't work that way. Each day is new, with its own set of challenges and discoveries, no matter how much sameness we think we are encountering.

Whenever I try to explain my approach to writing--one of the more popular questions at writers' panels--I think of John Updike and his contrast between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. Writing nonfiction, Updike said, is like hugging the shore, the term for sailing always in sight of land. Writing fiction is sailing away from the shore, away from the safe markers of the world, to discover what is out there. It's risky and it can be scary, because the waves are higher and the wind stronger, but the chance is much greater that you'll find a new land.