I really do have trouble with surprises

I’ve started work on my mystery.  I have 120 pages written so far.  And if you’ve read this blog very long, you know that I need plot points to hold my hand before I can cross a street.  I was feeling a little bit frisky this time, though.  I’m changing genres again.  I’ve written mysteries before.  If I wrote down the basic directions, the important clues and suspects, I should be fine, right?  I should have known better.

I plotted the heck out of romances.  They were new to me.  I always felt that I wouldn’t have enough to make it to the end and worried about soggy middles.  Romances, for me, are just as hard to write as urban fantasy or mysteries.  I’ve heard “important” writers bash romances.  I went to a writers’ conference years ago where one of the workshop leaders announced that anyone who wrote genre fiction was a hack writer.  Bull pucky. That kind of snobbery only works if you’ve never tried to write genre.

Mysteries?  They sort of have a built-in plot, right?  Someone trips over a body.  There are clues, suspects, witnesses, and red herrings, but not on every page.  I was hitting my points pretty well and  feeling good about it until I hit page 110 in the manuscript and realized I’d burned through half of my plot points.  I’d already reached the halway turning point for the book.  I was telling too much, too fast, too soon.  And that’s what happens to me when I don’t outline.

My pantser friends can write forty pages for one chapter and have to go back and cut to tighten things up.  They concentrate on description, feelings, and internal dialogue.  It comes naturally to them.  And that’s the difference between us.  Me?  I can fly through ten plot points in five chapters.   Then I have to go back and ADD the description, the thoughts and feelings.  I’m a plot driven person.

The reality came to me when my writers’ group went out after our last meeting.  I love our group.  We have a little bit of everything, and we all approach writing from different angles.  But then it occured to me, we approach LIFE differently, too.  I realized just how much I like structure when I was telling them that I have a “schedule” for cooking because it gives me a frame to hang my creativity on.  My schedule?  Saturdays, I cook beef/hamburger. Sundays, pork.  Mondays, ethnic.  Tuesdays, chicken.  Wednesdays, soup/salads/or sandwiches.  Thursdays, fish/seafood.  And Friday?  NO COOKING.  Now on Sundays, I might make pulled pork, smothered pork chops, ham, brats and sauerkraut, butterflied pork loin with a dried cranberry and chopped walnut filling. ANY kind of pork, but I make pork.  I bring the same approach to my writing.

I have plot points, but those points can be written any way I come up with.  I just need enough of them.  SO, I stopped work at page 110 of my mystery, and I sat down and wrote out 40 plot points, like I should have in the beginning, that included EVERYTHING that I wanted in my book–like character development, setting, and a romance subplot, along with a couple of other subplots.  Sigh.  There are writers who don’t need to do this.  I’m not one of them.   And then I went through my beginning pages again, and they’re much more balanced now.  I’m happy with them.

And what have I learned?  (Again).   There are pantsers who write wonderful books.  I’m not one of them.  I need structure to release my creativity.  And that’s okay.  That’s what works for me.  And if I rush or feel frisky and think I can skip that step?  Well…I can always do it later when I’ve hit a wall.

Writing: why plotting is good for me

I’ve touched on this before.  I’m a plotter.  Not everyone is, and that’s fine.  One of my writer friends tells me that if she knows what’s going to happen in a scene, she doesn’t write it.  The surprise element is gone, and it’s too boring to bother with.  But the opposite holds true for me.  If I write by the seat of my pants (like my pantser friends), I’m always struggling to come up with new scenes and new ideas and trying to sequence them together.  I feel like I’m blindfolded and “feeling” my way from one scene to the next in my story.

When I started work on my third Fallen Angels novel, I sat down to scribble out the main idea for the story.   After that, an opening scene came to me.  Since this is a sequel, I knew the main characters, but I made character wheels for the new characters who’d be in this book.  I played with and discarded several turning points for the main plot before I settled on two major ones, and I knew the ending.  Sometimes, that’s all I’ve got when I start a book–the inciting incident, set up, two turning points, and the ending.  But when I put my fingers on the computer keys to write these basics for Enoch and Voronika, plot points just kept coming to me.

My writing muse smiled on me.  Thank you, Muse!  When I got done, I had twenty-seven plot points for the novel.  I’d write one, and the next one would pop into my mind.  The what if’s led from one scene to the next.  Awesome, because in my ideal world, I like to have one plot point for each ten pages of manuscript.  Just an average.  Some scenes or chapters are short and some are long, and sometimes I sneak two scenes into one chapter.  And usually, when I write, new scenes spring from things my characters do that I could never think of in advance.

This is NOT my typical brainstorming session, but I’ve learned that no two books are ever alike.  I fight with some books, trying to bring them to life, and others are like a gift that makes plotting them easy.  This one was a gift.

I was so happy, I told one of my writer friends about it, and she shrugged.  “That would ruin the book for me,” she said.  But one thing I’ve learned about my own writing style is that if I have a sense of direction, my characters actually surprise me more.  I look at my notes and know what needs to happen in a scene, and I think I know how I’m going to accomplish that, but then my characters whisper, “But what if I did this instead?”  And if it doesn’t change the direction of the story, and it’s better than what I came up with, I let my characters have their way.  And almost always, their way has more conflict and more interest.

For me, if I don’t have to think about the basics of writing, then I can concentrate on adding more drama and depth.  Having plot points frees my imagination to explore how to get the maximum punch from each scene.  And you’d think, with twenty-seven plot points, I wouldn’t hit snags or worry about soggy  middles.  But I’ve never found that to be true.  Somehow, somewhere, all the plot points and subplots tie themselves into knots, and what looked so neat and tidy on paper clusters into a giant mess that my mind tries to hide from.  My pacing bogs down into a morass of confusion, but I know that if I follow my guideposts, I’ll eventually slog in the right direction and hit solid ground.

Each writer has to find what works for him or her.  But I’m a champion for plot points.  I’d rather travel with a map than follow the sun and stars and hope I’m going in the right direction.

(Just want to let you know that I won’t write a blog next Sunday.  My friends are coming to my house for an Oscar Party.  I’ll be cleaning and cooking and having fun.  But I’ll be back the Sunday after that.  And if anyone has any topic they’d like me to write about, leave me a comment, and I’ll give it a shot.)