Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Writing Process: When The Mouse Hits a Dead End

As most writers will tell you, there really are two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. I suppose it's possible there are some freakish hybrids out there, but I have no idea what that would look like. For those who aren't familiar with the words, the first is probably pretty self-evident. They plot out their books, and even series of books, down to the letter. They have summaries of each chapter and know going in who's going to live, who's going to die, and who the bad guy is. For them, writing is just filling in the spaces between a basically predetermined set of plot points. Pantsers, on the other hand, are flying by the seat of their pants. They are much like a mouse in a maze, trying out a route and turning around when they come to a dead end. Sometimes a route is long and circuitous, only to end up being fruitless--or cheeseless, if you want to carry on the mouse analogy.

I'm a firm pantser. To some degree or another, I am discovering the plot and characters as I write them. Author E. L. Doctorow said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night; you can see only as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way." These, my friends, are the words of a pantser. I like the analogy, but I think a more accurate comparison is that writing is like exploring a house at night with the power out. You can see only as far as the end of the flashlight beam, but you can discover every room and its contents that way. I see writing as less a trip from point A to point B than a journey of discovery. And that's why I like being a pantser. If I already knew what and who was in every room, the joy of discovery would be abated. To paraphrase my dear old friend and teaching colleague Dan Daniel, I could be a plotter if I wanted to; I just can't want to.

flashlight, dark, tunnel, underground, guy, man, people, black and whiteBut that's not to say my process doesn't have pitfalls. Like the mouse hits dead ends, sometimes I'll write whole chapters only to discover that I've taken a wrong turn. The route doesn't get me where I want to go or ends up not fitting in the overall narrative I think I'm trying to achieve. Sometimes, like an instance I wrote about with my second book, Kisses and Lies, it's a matter of rewriting a character to make her more sympathetic and round. In that case, if I introduced the character badly, it wouldn't break our hearts toward the end when she dies very badly at the hands of a horrible man.

And then there are situations like the one I've put myself in with my latest work in progress. I just wrote a scene this week in which the Shalans are on vacation and they discover that the murderer they were seeking back home has somehow appeared in North Carolina where they're staying. I felt when I was writing it that it was good stuff and would make for an intriguing twist. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like it might be a blind alley, to borrow a Britishism. I'm not sure I can satisfactorily explain how in the world the villain has ended up, against all odds, in the exact same place, hundreds of miles away, as the protagonists. Yes, I could make it fit, but I'd have to change the whole arc to the ending I've envisioned. I'm close enough to the end of the story that the final solution is starting to clarify in my mind and this story-line just does doesn't fit it. The killer isn't following Harry, Dee, and Jenn and to have this person show up two states away at the exact same place would require an astounding level of coincidence or it would necessitate coming up with a reason why he or she actually is following the Shalans.

fork, road, sign, pavement, lines, trees, forest, woods, ruralSo what do I do? I have two choices. I boot the scene and go a different direction. Like a regular old mouse, I turn around and try another route in the maze. But unlike a plain mouse, I have the ability to alter the maze. I can grab a grenade and blow a hole in the dead end and keep going. If I really like the scene and want to keep it, I've found a compelling reason to adjust my plot arc.

So which is it? Reroute or readjust the arc? Regular mouse or mighty mouse? I guess you'll have to read the book to find out.