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.


  1. I'm with you on outlining. I use a story tracking board and an idea board so I don't get lost as I discover my story.

  2. I absolutely agree! I don't outline and find it so limiting. Nothing makes me happier than writing furiously away and then reading back over what I just wrote and thinking "wow! where did that come from???"

    In my book "Each Angel Burns" I had NO idea that the angel would be discovered the way it was until the minute I wrote it. Now readers have told me they gasp at that passage and say "how did you ever think of that?" and I always say that I didn't -- the angel did.

    Good post, Susan!

  3. I don't outline (and I've never written a mystery novel) but I will keep notes as I write about what could happen, what would be fun to include in the next scene, what loose ends I've created that need to be tied up. I try to make notes at the end of each writing day. But...and this is where I get around to Susan's post...I almost never do what I tell myself in my notes. Even a day later I've got new ideas and new places to explore. Sometimes I think that the minute I write it down in an outline or in notes, it's as good as dead. Thanks for letting us know about your new post, Susan.

  4. I have hated outlining since 7th grade social studies class. My three mysteries were written seat-of-the-pants style, with notes (always notes on hundreds of scraps of paper) but never an outline unless some editor required it after the fact and then, gritting my teeth, I'd put nose to the grindstone. This time, I did write a sketchy outline and it did feel good to be making a road map. However, that said, I find I am ignoring it. It's as Rae said, once the ideas are written down, the excitement dies. I look at the words now and it's like they belong to someone else.

  5. It's nice to know I'm not the only one intimidated by the dreaded outline. I also feel that once I've written it, it's over and done with. Editing is one thing, but writing the same scene twice, once from notes, seems to take the life out of it for me.

    I like the idea of a story board, and I'm wondering if I have to be more organized about writing than I am in order to make that work. I'll have to think about that one.

    Thank you all for your comments, and sharing your approaches to getting the book done.

  6. Susan - I use a TRACKING board, not a story board, so it's all done after the fact. I've got a handout on my website explaining it: Plotting for Non-Plotters.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. I checked out your website and the piece on the workshop (for non plotters). Very interesting and terrific quotes.

    I keep notes of ideas/lines/questions I want to include as I go along, but they don't all make it into the story and they're not organized, just a list on a page. I couldn't remember them if I didn't write them down. But then, I'd still keep writing whatever came when I had pen in hand or fingers on the keys.