Sunday, September 9, 2012

You Do WHAT???

Some readers think writers tell stories.  You know, you take a few characters and some events and you . . . well, you tell the story.

As much as we sometimes like to pretend that's what we do, it isn't.  A book needs a plot, and a story and a plot aren't quite the same thing.  A story--for example, the way we might tell someone about our day or a particularly wretched airline flight--is as much like life as possible.  A plot is like life, too, but better. It has structure, pacing, texture, rhythm.  All the things life so conspicuously lacks.

So obviously, creating a plot is serious business.  For example:

" . . . With me," Cara Black says, "plotting resembles making playdough— I assemble the ingredients then get all tactile, hands on and work with a lump of ideas. Often it involves arranging scribbled-on restaurant napkins, Metro tickets, putting up photos, maps and diagrams on the wall. Messy and sloppy some might say; or among four-year olds we’d call it creative engagement."

Lisa Brackmann compares her method to "juggling a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a flaming torch."

Behind all this sincere self-deprecation, I think almost every writer acknowledges that plotting is a mystery.  Whether they mull their tale for months and then outline it painstakingly or whether they type ten words or so and then just follow those words into a book, as the prolific Bill Crider does, none of us really know where plot comes from.  Are we inventing something or uncovering something?  What's the process?

I mean, Cara Black's books are elegant and meticulous, and yet they often have their origin in the kinds of stuff we sometimes accidentally put through the wash in our pockets.  I'm a writer myself, and my reaction is partly, Huh?

This has interested me for years.  Three or four years ago (maybe more) I asked ten writers to explore the mystery on my other blog, the one I never write anything for.  At the time I simply asked them to write about whether they plotted in advance, with outlines and index cards and, I don't know, interchangeable squares of linoleum, or did they just sit down and let it rip.  (Not that either approach is ever quite that pure.)  The thread that resulted was probably the most popular thing I ever put up, and I must have sent 150 aspiring writers to my site to read the pieces.

About six months ago, my wife, Munyin, suggested that I expand those blogs to book length and that I make that book the first volume in an ongoing series in which working writers would talk about aspects of their craft with an eye toward helping people who might be struggling with their own writing,

Six months later, we have the volume pictures above, MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, and it's the first of a projected five or six TWENTY-ONE WRITERS books.

It's been fascinating.  Virtually every writer I approached said yes, and I mean that literally.  I asked 22, and 20 said yes.  The writers in this first TWENTY-ONE WRITERS publication are Brett Battles, Cara Black, Lisa Brackmann, Rachel Brady, Rebecca Cantrell, Jeffrey Cohen, Meredith Cole, Bill Crider, Jeremy Duns, Leighton Gage, Gar Anthony Haywood, Wendy Hornsby, Debbi Mack, Mike Orenduff, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Zoe Sharp, Jeffrey Siger, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Kelli Stanley, Michael Stanley, and little me.  As a group, we've written more than a hundred published novels and won and/or been nominated for, essentially, everything.

(The sharp-eyed among you will have realized that all the MIE people are in the book except Dan Waddell.  The problem was that when I started to ask new writers it was imperative to go after as many women as possible.  I'm hoping Dan will be in a later book, assuming the series continues.)

I learned something from every essay.  This is the book I wish I'd had when I was just starting to write.  It's clear that each of us approaches the challenge of plotting somewhat differently, but all that does is underline what Jeffrey Cohen wrote in his piece:  "What I found out is that there’s no right way to write. There’s no wrong way, either. There’s only your way."

It's available for Kindle now and will move into other formats if it's successful in this one.  It's only $3.99, and you can find it here.

If you enjoy reading it half as much as I did putting it together, you'll have a great time.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim, I imagine that a lot of soul searching went into those essays. It would be very interesting to hear how the contributors feel articulating the process affected their practice of it.

  2. I hope the book is successful, as I found it absolutely fascinating (not to mention a GREAT way to 'meet' a bunch of new-to-me writers), and hope to read more about other aspects of the writing process.

    As for 'plotting,' I view it more as 'composing,' very much similar to the act of composing music, or composing a painting. You could take a blank canvas, make one squiggly stroke on it, and then most accomplished painters could take that as a starting point and generate a host of different 'riffs' from that one beginning. Some would just start dabbing paint, others would sketch in an entire scene in pencil, erasing, rubbing, reworking, before ever the first drop of paint touched the canvas. But they're all composing in their heads, as they go. My feeling is that they're all doing the same basic process, in their minds, the only real difference is at what point in the process are they willing to start committing pigment? Early, middle or late in the process?

  3. I've downloaded it, and look forward to reading it. It seems that it is not only for aspiring writers, but admiring readers as well.

  4. I just got back from a one day, round-trip, 350-mile exploration of the California coastline between San Francisco and Carmel. And I did it by the seat of my pants, without a map. Trust me, it's a lot easier doing that when writing than riding...for with a bit more organization the trip would have been only 250 miles.

    But then again, it wouldn't have been as exciting or unexpectedly surprising a journey (including the wrong way one-ways) as it was.

    Thanks, Tim, for conceiving, organizing, and shepherding on to conclusion such a terrific, to the point book.

  5. Thanks, everybody -- the book is much better than I'd hoped it would be, not only because it's hard to imagine the writer who wouldn't find it useful but also because it's so entertaining.

    Annamaria, we've all been too busy to promote it, but I'm going to ask that very good question of all of them with the suggestion that they blog about it.

    Everett, thanks again for all you did to bring the project along. I believe you're right -- it's the same imaginative act whether you outline at book-length, as James Ellroy does, or make it up on the fly.

    Lil, please tell me what you think of it, and especially whether it's enjoyable reading.

    I really do hope you all like it. J

  6. Downloaded and very much looking forward to reading it..always like a peer behind the curtain to see how otherrs pull the levers

    Oh and Tim - blokes have been bypassing me to go after women all their life. I'm used to it...

  7. Pleased to have five of you on a Bouchercon panel. Get up on time, drink plenty of coffee, wear clean clothes, and everything will be fine.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  8. Dan, as much as I hate to admit it, I would probably bypass you for a woman, or at least I would have before I got married. Now other women are invisible to me, it says here.

    Peter, thank God we're not a crack-of-dawn panel or I probably would have worn the coffee and drunk the new clothes. Early mornings -- brrrrr.