I don’t plot. Really.

on June 18, 2009

My good friend Alexandra Sokoloff, who blogged here the other week, commented once over at Murderati that everyone plotted to a certain degree, and that my first drafts were actually a detailed outline.

Right. All 80,000 words of my first draft in a book that usually ends up around 105,000 words.

At first, I was willing to concede the point, but recently I was struck by the fact that I really don’t plot my books.

It’s not a method of writing I recommend or don’t recommend. It’s simply the way it is. I give a workshop called NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED where I tell people that one of the biggest disadvantages of well-meaning writers is to tell others how to write. I’m not talking about basic grammar and spelling and genre story arc issues–like you don’t kill off the heroine in a romance or leave the primary murder unsolved in a murder mystery–but physically how a writer should pen the novel.

Some write long hand. Some use Word. Some specific writing software like Scrivener.

Some of us plot detailed outlines. Some of us write by the seat of our pants. (I, personally, hate the term “pantser” and refuse to use it.) Many are somewhere in between. In my workshop, which I developed with the incomparable bestselling author Patti Berg, we tell people when they’re stuck, try every way out there–because sometimes we are pigeon-holed early on and think we have to do it one way because it’s the right way.

There is no “right” way to write when it comes to plotting or organic writing. There is, however, a “right” way for you. Discovering the process that works best for you (and I say “works best” because often the best way is still rife with struggles and problems and head-banging) may take awhile. And it may take trying new approaches to writing, either changing the degree of plotting, changing the genre focus, even changing your writing location or the software you use.

The single most important thing to remember is that as long as you’re making forward progress, as long as you’re writing toward THE END–and make it there!–then you’re a success. Why? Because for as many people out there who say they could write a book if they only “had the time”, only a handful of us even attempt it. And of those who attempt it, only a handful actually finish a book they started.

I don’t like plotting because I don’t like feeling tied to a storyline. My characters become real, I see them, hear them, experience their feelings. How the hell am I supposed to know how they’re going to react to a plot point if I haven’t gotten to know them yet? And I don’t really know them until I cross the first threshold (in Vogler-speak.)

I can write a decent synopsis, as long as no one plans on using it for anything. Case in point: I have to write a “one-pager” for the copy department, usually when I’m about halfway done with my book. Sometimes sooner, if the art department wants more than the paragraph I submitted earlier. I write my one-pagers like detailed back-cover copy–I know my characters names (usually) and occupations and the major set-up. I use lots of juicy adjectives that don’t really mean anything but set the tone and often throw in cool-sounding stakes that I have no intention of using. Then I write an ending–usually something like, “They nearly die, kill the bad guys, and live happily ever after.”

One teeny problem with this approach came up in CUTTING EDGE when I thought the book was about a killer targeting bio-tech scientists. I was certainly shocked when I got into the killer’s head and realized the true motivation and target. Hence, the back-cover copy had to be tweaked a bit at the last minute. And you could have knocked me over with a feather when I discovered–when halfway done–my heroine’s backstory. I then wrote the prologue. Up until then, the prologue was crappy and I hated it. I dumped that and wrote my longest prologue to date–nearly 20 manuscript pages. But it set up everything so well you’d have thought I planned it.

I didn’t. I had no idea. When I went back over the first half of the book expecting to have major rewrites, I ended up only tweaking a few things because it was all there–I just didn’t know it at the time.

I start with a premise, an idea, a “What if . . . ?” and go from there. That’s why my first chapters take so long to write. I often have to think the set-up through. Plotting? Maybe a bit, but it’s more like running scenarios through my head to come up with something plausible.

To digress a moment, this game I play at the set-up is generated through my previous and current research. For example, I “research” my books both while I write and before I even come up with an idea. When I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy, I thought I’d be writing a series based on the Evidence Response Teams because I love forensics. I have a lot of knowledge absorbed about crime scene analysis and police procedures. Not enough to be a CSI or a cop, but enough to know whether something is plausible or not, or to know exactly where to get the facts I need.

I never ended up writing the ERT books. But CUTTING EDGE came from an idea that was sparked while listening to the domestic terrorism special agent discuss a case where an informant helped take down would-be domestic bombers. He spoke of the girl with near-reverence and I couldn’t help but wonder who she was and what her backstory was, why she chose to assist the FBI when she’d been raised on the fringe of society. The true story stuck in my head and that’s why I’m not wholly surprised that the seeds were planted about my heroine’s backstory without me intentionally planting them. Because I had been very interested in the presentation, I absorbed much of the facts, laws and psychology of the types of cases domestic terrorism handled, so new research was minimal.

So I wrote CUTTING EDGE and rushed the ending because I was late on the book (long story) and I wasn’t happy with it, but I had time for revisions so after my editor read it and gave me her comments, I reworked the problem areas and as I’m wont to do, I started writing in a completely different direction. So my poor ending wasn’t going to stick anyway.

But five hours before I had to turn in the book, I had no idea how it was going to end.

I’d sort of written myself into a hole, and I was out of time. If I kept it as it was, my heroine would be TSTL. And she wasn’t–as proven throughout the book. But the climax was set up in a great place, it made sense for the characters, and I needed to figure out how it all came together.

That night, I was writing late at my favorite pub and I left at closing, banging my head on the steering wheel, trying to figure out how to get my heroine onto the mountain plausibly.

I passed a fire station and suddenly everything came clear. It worked. Everything I’d written worked, I just had to tweak a couple things and everything fell into place.

More recently, while writing ORIGINAL SIN–the first book of my seven deadly sins series–I didn’t know where my hero was.

First, to clarify the storyline, this is an ensemble cast. My heroine, Moira O’Donnell, is the driving force of the series. The hero is Rafe Cooper, who was in a coma in “Deliver Us From Evil” in WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE (with fabulous stories by our own Roxanne St. Claire and Karin Tabke!!!) But Anthony Zaccardi and Sheriff Skye McPherson are also major characters; I have two teenagers who are pivotal to the story; a true crime writer who takes a backseat in book one, but will be important in books two and three; and a strong cast of secondary characters. Being the first book of the series, while it starts out with a bang, there’s still a lot of set-up that I’m trying to integrate into action so I’m not dumping huge amounts of info on my readers all at once. I have more than forty research books, everything from witchcraft to the history of ancient religions to mythology to exorcisms and prayer books. I’ve skimmed most of them (and when I say “skim” I mean it–I just want to get an idea of what’s inside) and read five or six in greater depth. So I have a foundation I’m building on as I write.

So, anyway, my hero walks on page in chapter two, but disappears shortly thereafter and I had no idea where he went. I feared the bad guys got him, but when I brought the primary villain on page to confront my heroine, I realized she didn’t know where he was either. I’m writing and writing and not really thinking about him, then all of the sudden it’s Chapter Nine and my heroine is looking for him . . . and I have no idea where he is.

Fortunately, Moira is smarter than me and she finds him–barely alive–and surprisingly close to the initial crime scene.

Oh, and there’s a dead body (duh, it’s an Allison Brennan book, there has to be a dead body or three, right?) that Moira needs to destroy otherwise the occult will retrieve it for nefarious purposes. It took me all day to find a plausible way for her to break into the morgue unseen to snatch the body–and dammit, the body wasn’t there! She was too late. Which really throws a wrench into where I THOUGHT the story was going.

ORIGINAL SIN will be my thirteenth novel (somehow, that’s seems appropriate for my first supernatural thriller.) And my inability to plot hasn’t changed. I wrote a ELEVEN PAGE SINGLE SPACE synopsis for this book with the caveat typed in bold and all caps: DON’T HOLD ME TO THIS!!! . . . Pg 1-2 was the series overview (no brainer, I’ve been thinking about this series for nearly six years) and a brief synopsis written like back cover copy. Pg 3-5 are character paragraphs–my seven primary characters and the villains. Again, I’ve been thinking about them for a long time so I have a good sense for who they are. Sort of. Pg 6-7 is backstory–all the set up that leads to chapter one. Again, I’ve been figuring this out for awhile, though as I just skimmed through it I realized it’s wrong. The story changed the backstory . . . Pg 8-11 is the long synopsis. Of that, the first two pages is essentially the first three chapters of the book, and the last two pages are where I thought that story was going . . . and it’s all kind of wrong now. I haven’t looked at it after sending it in, until now . . . I didn’t realize how truly far I’ve deviated from how I *thought* it would happen.

But I can’t imagine doing this any other way.

However, I not incapable of change. Toni talked about the writing program Scrivener (Macs only) and I spontaneously bought it because I was just getting ready to dive into writing ORIGINAL SIN. Brand new series, new genre . . . new writing program! Why not? I went through the tutorial and imported what I had written (which, other than a small section, is now all gone as my story took off in a direction I didn’t plan . . . ) I don’t use all the features of Scrivener, but I discovered that you can teach this old dog new tricks.

I have NEVER written a book out of order, with the exception that I do often write prologues when they come to me which may be in the middle of a book. But I have to start at chapter one and go to chapter two and write linearly.

Scrivener has this cool binder function so I can see all my chapters and scenes on the left side. I can take notes on the right side. (Ok, I don’t really use the note function much.) But I’ve named my scenes and I’ve started writing a *bit* out of order. Not dramatically, but because it’s so easy to move the scenes around, I’ve found that I can write a scene as I think of it–like the autopsy scene–and move it later in the book (or earlier) and only tweaking the transitions. It’s amazing.

Of course, I have no idea what the book is going to look like when I’m done! But I’m sure having fun 🙂 Especially writing in “full screen” mode–everything is blacked out except a strip in the middle of the screen where I write to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve been staying off the internet, immersed more in the story, and am “seeing” the story far sharper.

The only drawback and something I’m adjusting to is that I’ve always known where I am in the book based on my page county writing in 12 pt double spaced courier. I never looked at word count. Scrivener doesn’t have pages (until you export) and everything is word count driven. So I don’t have an intuitive grasp of where I am in the story based on page . . . though I’m also finding this freeing as I’m not subconsciously writing toward certain thresholds.

And amazingly . . . they’re all still there.

So write the right way for YOU. And don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way to write. There isn’t. As the incomparable Cherry Adair would say, “Just write the damn book.”

P.S. I’ll be out all day and will check in tonight. I’m doing role playing with FBI SWAT in their tactical training drills. Yes, I’m serious. 🙂 . . . do you see the grin on my face? 😉