Monday, August 03, 2009

Trust Your Instincts

What I'm reading: Hot Pursuit, by Suzanne Brockmann

What's new? My contest for August. I have an ARC—an uncorrected proof—of When Danger Calls. As we're still trying to minimize what we'll have to move, should we actually sell our house, I've decided to part with it as the prize for my August contest. Details on my website.

And a salute to my daughter who finished second in her age class at a triathlon event this past weekend in Colorado. She's doing it through "Team in Training" to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

And if you missed seeing it, be sure to check out my interview at the Author Exchange Blog.

Back to writing:

Saturday, I had my handouts ready, my tracking and idea boards packed up, my GPS programmed, and everything was looking good for the workshop portion of our monthly RWA chapter meeting. But, as seems to be the way things work when I'm added to the mix there was the inevitable glitch. We'd finished the business portion of the meeting, and were just getting into the discussion of plotting when the mall security guard poked his head into the room. It seems the meeting room had been reserved by another group, and the schedule said we were supposed to be there on the following Saturday. So, our hour-long presentation was compressed to 15 minutes.

Keep Reading...

These things happen. It just seems that they always happen to me. I warn everyone—if I'm standing in line at the grocery store checkout, don't get behind me. It's a sure bet that either the person in front of me will be trying to pay with rolls of coins, or I'll be halfway through my order when the checker won't be able to find the magic code that will enter my tomatillos. (Although I did have one checker who gave me an item free when she couldn't find the right code.)

At any rate, I did promise to share my workshop notes, even if I was the one giving the workshop. The topic, as mentioned, was "Plotting for Non-Plotters."

Can you really write a book without plotting? Every writer plots. Without plot, there's no story. It's a matter of how and when you do it.

What works for one author might not work for another. There is no single way, no best way. You figure out what gets you from Chapter One to The End, and that's 'right' for you. For that book. You're not locked into any single method. Part of the adventure is experimenting, testing, modifying.

One of the bullet points on my handout was Trust Your Instincts. This is something that I've come to believe in. Even if you don't know your entire plot when you start putting words on the page, you've probably been thinking about it for some time. You have some premise as a foundation, whether it's a character, a scene, or even a line of dialogue. (Don't laugh—one of the short stories in my recent submission to a mystery anthology came to be because I always wanted to use a specific line in a story someday.)

When I wrote Finding Sarah, I began with the characters. I knew my hero would be a cop who had a very strong vision about the lines of right and wrong in his job, and I wanted to push to see what it would take to drag him across. When I started, that's about all I knew about him. In an early draft, he'd had a personal emotional trauma, and he went down the hall of his house, opened the door to the spare bedroom, and—surprise to me, there was a piano in there. He sat down and played. He'd never told me he was a gifted pianist. It definitely worked for the story, and when I went back to see if I had to change anything, there was a single line that had to be adjusted. Everything else fit perfectly.

In the book I'm working on now, I needed an opening "show the hero in his normal life" scene. Gordon is the police chief in a small town, so I showed him going over the reports from the night shift. Included was the following paragraph:

Back to Dunsworth's hen scratches. Suspected drug use. He looked at that one a little more carefully. Mapleton didn't need drug problems. Officer smelled marijuana, but didn't find any hard evidence. Gordon checked the name. Not one he recognized. Address was the Richardsons' B&B. Not a local, then. Table that one for now.

That was Chapter One. In Chapter Twenty-two, the character (who I went back and gave a name) turned out to be part of a thread that would send Gordon off after a red herring. Did I know it when I wrote that paragraph in Chapter One? Nope. But it worked.

And the reverse is true. If an idea hits in Chapter Twenty, you might have to go back and add details to make sure you're not springing something new on the reader.

The beauty of writing is that you have the awesome power to control time, so you can go back and fill in details as the plot unfolds, so that you've foreshadowed properly. As I mentioned in my post notes from Martha Powers' presentation on suspense, "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit." You can't spring something on the reader for the first time when you need it to move the story. But you do need to keep track of all the little details you've inserted, because it's quite likely your subconscious is telling you they're going to be needed later.

As an example from the movies: We've been watching the Pink Panther movies on Netflix recently. We just watched the first Steve Martin one. At the very beginning, Clouseau goes through an elaborate shtick when he enters a room, talking about the weather, then karate-chopping the breaks to make sure the room is 'secure.' Later in the movie, he overhears someone using the same dialogue about the weather and he immediately approaches the man and introduces himself as someone also 'in the business.' The reader was set up to accept this sort of exchange (and then was treated to a James Bond spoof). In yet another instance, someone had entered Clouseau's office and hid behind the drapes when he heard Clouseau coming in. We'd 'bought the premise' that Clouseau would be checking the room, so we 'bought the bit' when he and his secretary went through the weather spiel and attacked the draperies. Had we not seen it before, we wouldn't have accepted it as anything other than a forced piece of action.

If you'd like the handout, I've uploaded it to my website. If you have any questions, ask them here, and I'll try to address them in a future post.

Tomorrow: A bonus. My guest, author Rob Walker, is bringing his wife along to talk about how the two of them manage to write, killing off only their characters and not each other as they juggle their writing careers while coexisting under the same roof.


Patricia Stoltey said...

That must have been a major frustration to lose the room just as you started your presentation. I think I would have been grinding my teeth while trying hard to keep smiling.

As for plotting, I usually start my story first (knowing the characters I want to use and the setting), and after I get a feel for all that, I open a separate document and work out a tentative story line. Rarely follow it to the letter, of course.

Terry Odell said...

Most definitely frustrating, although I tell myself 1) mistakes happen, and 2) It wasn't MY loss, as I already know what I'm talking about. But for anyone who wanted to see the up close examples, and ask questions, they were left with the handout and not much else.