There are those who suggest that even if a story has a plot when it’s done, this shouldn’t concern the writer overly much when he’d writing it. Concern for the plot will activate the writer’s internal editor, leading to a stifling of creativity and falsity of voice. W. O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind?) developed a style of writing called Free Fall which called for writing without editing, moving forward as thoughts and sensations occurred in the writer’s mind. While I’ve found this to be occasionally useful when writing short stories or when suffering from writer’s block, it doesn’t seem to work all that well when it comes to novels. When I’ve tried, I usually wind up with a big mass of text in desperate need of an editor. Or a story. I am well aware of Ezra Pound’s admonition that the three rules of writing are: Re-write. Re-write. Re-write! However, since I happen to really hate re-writing I generally rely on plotting to keep me on track.
Fortunately, I write genre fiction where plot is not a dirty word. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance – you know, the books people want to read – all require a greater or lesser degree of plot to work. Genre fiction has been described many ways but I like to think of it as ‘practical problem’ fiction. The main character is presented with a problem – say, a dead girl in a locked room – and by the end of the novel, the problem should be resolved. If it’s not, the reader will be disappointed and is unlikely to buy the next book in the series.
Having said all that, the question remains: how much plot is too much? For the writer, the issue is simpler. Am I bound by the requirements of plot to deliver the goods in a particular way? Where does the creative spark come in – that eureka moment that makes the act of writing worthwhile? Because face it, if all the decisions about a book are made before the writing begins, having to spend four to six months to deliver a dead work of art would be far too oppressive to bear. It would also begin to seem an awful lot like hackery.
Fortunately, I continue to discover that the relationship between plotting and writing is, like any good relationship, flexible, changing, passionate and often filled with spontaneity. I’ve just finished my third novel of The Steele Chronicles, a trilogy of near-future noir police un-procedurals (as a friend of mine has dubbed them) set in a very dystopic Calgary. Titled Stealing Home, this third volume had the fairly substantial task of not only solving its own particular crime but with wrapping up the broader themes and story arcs that run through the entire set of novels. Someone other than me will have to judge if I succeeded.
Unlike the second book, Steel Whispers, which really was a dream to write, I struggled with Stealing Home. Thematically it was more abstract and obscure and the plot itself was more complex. I spent several weeks working through the various character arcs and developing a chapter by chapter plot outline which I thought would lead me to a satisfying conclusion. I fully expected that I would have to tweak the plot from time to time – that had been my process in the last three books I’d written. I had made changes to the middle parts of the plot but the beginnings and ends of the books were pretty firmly set. Not so with Stealing Home.
My first discovery was that I had too much plot. The outline called for 55 chapters and probably more than 110,000 words. But as I went along I found that some of the minor stories resolved themselves much quicker than expected. I began to trim chapters, eliminating some and combining others. Lengthy exposition transformed into crisp scenes of character revealing itself through action. The second discovery was much more painful.
At seventy thousand words I realized I was only twenty thousand from the end and I still had a big problem. I didn’t really know how the novel would end! This came as a bit of a shock. I thought I knew whodunit and why and how but I was feeling less and less happy with that certainty and my writing speed had slowed to a crawl. Of course, a mystery is not a mystery if it is obvious what happened from the start. I had deliberately created several possible explanations – all but one of which would be eliminated as the mystery rolled to its conclusion. But it all seemed wrong somehow and that troubled me to the point it kept me awake at night, something that work of any sort seldom does. Then , like Archimedes in the bath, it suddenly came to me. I won’t say what came to me since I’d prefer you read the book and find out for yourself. Suffice it to say, all my problems were suddenly resolved and I wrote the rest of the first draft in less than a week.
I now had to go back and fix the plot so the ending made sense. Except when I did, I found I barely had to change anything at all. My conscious rational mind may have thought it was doing all the work, creating a brilliant outline that dealt with all contingencies, but my creative mind – the one apparently engaged when I’m actually writing rather than thinking about writing – had been taking care of business. Part of me apparently knew the answer right from the start but decided to keep it from me so I could have my moment of joyful resolution.
What do I conclude from all this. Certainly not that I should do away with plotting or the development of elaborate outlines. Rather, to remember that outlines are not carved in stone but rather are traced in the sand. One must always be open to the creative moment. Sometimes you’re lucky and your subconscious prepares the way and sometimes, as was the case when I wrote the first book of the trilogy, you have to delete the twenty thousand words you just slaved over and start again.