Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Case For Plotting

There are many methods of writing fiction. Here are the most common.

A Found Thing

This is the term Stephen King gives to his style of writing in his book On Writing. It's also known as "By the Seat of One's Pants," but I prefer King's term. It's been a while since I read "On Writing," but this is how I recall King describing it.

Let's say you're having a leisurely stroll through the woods when something on the ground catches your eye. You stop, stoop, and take a look, and discover what you're really looking at is the top of some buried thing. You inspect the thing and form an opinion of what it might be based on what you can see.

It's captured your interest so you clean it off with your hand, and now that you can see it better, your opinion of what it might be changes a little. Now you're really interested so you dig around the edges with your trusty Swiss Army knife and uncover more of the object. Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly what you thought it was when you couldn't see as much of it, so your opinion changes again.

This process continues as you uncover more of the object until you've dug the thing up. Based on what it is, you may or not know what you've found. It could be a treasure chest with yet unknown treasures (or terrors!) inside. You'll have to pry the chest open to see what's inside. It might be some kid's backpack he lost a few years ago, containing textbooks his parents had to pay for. It could be a baseball mitt, with nothing to discover inside.

This is how I wrote my first novel, CANALS. I began with a premise: there's a monster in the canals that flow around and through Modesto, California. I planted myself in front of the old Windows 95 computer in the spare bedroom and wrote the first scene of the novel. By the time I finished the first scene, I had an inkling of what would happen next; i.e., I uncovered more of the object. I continued in this manner until I finished the novel.

Writing like this is both exhilarating and frustrating. You might learn, as you write your story, that a character is not the same as you envisioned him or her at the beginning. Or, you'll think of something that should've happened earlier to set up a scene you're currently writing. In other words, an author who writes like this has to do a lot of rewriting. At least I do, maybe King's so good he doesn't have to go bad and edit before he's done with the first draft.

Another negative I've noted is, you can write yourself into some tight spaces where your only logical plot possibilities don't make much sense, or are bizarre. I refer you to King's book It. A great book made into a pretty good TV movie. People the world over are afraid of clowns because of that movie. But the ending... A big spider? Really? To me, a really dumb ending. Many of King's books have endings that make you scratch your head and wonder why. Now you know why.

Strict Plotting

Some writers figure out what happens before they write the story, and they rarely deviate from their pre-determined plot. Much time is spent plotting as they have to flesh out every detail in advance.

King wrote that the only book he plotted was Dead Zone. A pretty good book and movie, in my opinion. Christopher Walken was a perfect choice for the lead. He can do nutty like no one else.

There are advantages to strict plotting: there are no surprises to try and figure out how to handle. And, I understand the actual writing goes much faster. It should, you've already decided what's going to happen, and when.

Fiction Based On Real Events

Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood in this manner. Find an event that really happened and write a book about it, but turn the truth into fiction by changing things up. If you don't, you're documenting instead of writing fiction. Little plotting is needed because the writer need only follow the path of history.

Mixture of the Above Methods

This is how I write fiction. I begin with a premise, figure out how I want the story to end, then let my imagination tell me what happens in between. You might also call it the lazy-man's plotting; I'm too lazy to plot out a whole book. And for me, it would do away with the exhilaration I had writing CANALS.

Oh, I plot, but I plot in chunks. I think of it like driving at night: I can only see what the headlights illuminate. But the funny thing is, when I reach the last chunk of illuminated roadway, I can already see another chunk in front of me. In this manner I plot pieces of a book at a time. Sometimes I can see a chapter ahead, sometimes half a chapter. Occasionally two chapters, but not often.

You might find it helps to give some thought to your characters before you start writing, but not too much. Don't get your feet planted in a block of cement. Get an idea what they look like and give them some weaknesses; no one likes a perfect person.

For instance, my WIP, which takes place in north Seattle, features a local detective named Ira Utter. I've pictured him as about six feet tall, slim, with dark short-cropped dark hair. He's got a problem: he has trouble pronouncing even the simplest names, even after people tell him how to pronounce them. He's also a germ phobe, but not bad like Monk. And he's a recovering alcoholic who really feels the pull of the booze, like many do.

By giving Utter some characteristics in advance I've set up a number of possibilities. He could fall off the wagon, although that would be a little too cliché. He could have an ex-wife because of his years of drinking, but again, too cliché. Or, his marriage could show the baggage of his years of drinking and be a little messed up. The problem pronouncing names could lead to some humor, as could the germ-phobe thing.

But I've digressed and haven't addressed the topic suggested in the title of my post. Here's what happened to me recently.

I had written an opening with two women getting picked up at a bar by a third woman, only to end up dead in a dumpster a couple of days later. Utter draws the case because he's had four similar cases before. He's the guy chasing the Sunset Hill Slasher. I figured out a way to get Grant, Amber, and Bensen involved that didn't sound hokey, since they live in Central California.

But then I ran into some difficulties I couldn't find a way out of. I had Utter surprised when a witness told him the two women left with another woman, but how could he be if these deaths were his fifth and sixth Slasher cases? If the killer always picks his/her victims up at a bar, Utter should have learned this on the first case. When I decided this had to be Utter's first Slasher case, I also figured out a better way to introduce Grant and his team.

I just figured all this out today so now, starting tomorrow morning, I get to go back and rewrite thirty pages. That's the hazard of not being a strict plotter. On the other hand, I think the direction I'm going in now is far superior that what I had going before.

Every writer has to figure out what works best for him or her, and then work at getting better at it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

My Books Are Available Almost Everywhere Now

Just a quick post to say I've taken my ebooks out of Amazon's Select program and made them available for purchase on Barnes & Nobel's site and on Smashwords. I'll write a more detailed post next week on why, but the short version is my sales had flat lined on Amazon. And I got a little tired of their heavy-handed tactics. Like deleting reviews.

The paperback versions of all three novels are still available, of course, and are printed on-demand by Amazon's Createspace company. I have to say I'm not thrilled with the quality I'm seeing from Creatspace. It's not that it's bad, it's just that it hasn't been good, either. The colors of the cover seem washed out and the quality of the printing isn't top notch. Sigh... Something to work on later.

I'll be working on the blog soon, too, to make it easier to buy the ebooks from the different sources. For now, I'd recommend people who want the paperback to get it from Amazon, if they're Amazon shoppers. Not everyone is, you know. That way you can get free shipping if you buy two, or all three, of my novels. :)

See you again next week.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Finally Got The Thing Started

At some point a writer has to stop plotting and researching and just get the novel started. The first page can be the most difficult to write, but it's the most important. You can't finish a novel you haven't started.

This is how I get started on a novel.

1)  I get the basic idea of what I want the book to be about by either dreaming it up or through an "ah ha" moment. The idea for my new WIP came from another of my novels. One bad guy got away at the end of THE MIGHTY T (I won't say which as that would be a spoiler), and I kind of liked that bad guy. In fact, I often like my bad guys as much or more than the good guys, even though they can be rotten to the core. They're often very interesting people. So one day months ago I got the idea that it would be fun to do a follow up novel with him/her (no spoilers), and I plopped that idea into a pot I leave on a back burner in my mind.

2)  When I'm ready to get serious about writing the novel, I open a text document in Scrivener titled "Plot Thots" and I started jotting down some, well, plot thoughts. With CANALS I began with the question "What if there was a monster in the canals around here?" and I went from there. With THE MIGHTY T I thought "What if some guy, some nut, got tired of waiting for something to be done to help the poor salmon and decided to blow up the dam?" And then I let my imagination go. One idea leads to another, which leads to yet another. And so on. Pretty soon I've got a (very) rough plot outlined. I like to know how a book starts and how it ends before I begin writing it. I leave what happens in between to my imagination.

3)  Next I do some research. I don't want readers saying "that couldn't happen" when they read my books and they can't if I do my research. With CANALS I dug into the history of irrigation in and around Modesto, and I visited and took pictures of canals and I learned when they were filled and emptied. With THE MIGHTY T I dug into the controversy surrounding declining salmon populations in the Tuolumne River and what was or wasn't being done about it. (I read an article in today's paper about the state of California mandating that 15% more water be allowed into the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers this year--the controversy continues.) I also want to know who's on either side of the line drawn in the dirt. I research communities my story will take place in and visit them if I can. If they're too far away to visit, there's always Google Earth.

4)  When I feel I've got a good understanding of the issues, places, and things, I'll give the characters some thought. But not too much. I like to give them something to get them going but I want them to have the space to become what they will. I'm sure this gives you ardent plotters the willies. I need to understand enough about a character to bring him or her to life, but not so much that they can't grow and develop as the story progresses. Whether based wholly or partially on someone I know or know of, they will still be the product of my imagination. I want them to be mine by the time I've finished writing the book, and have finished the edits. I'm writing my third Grant Starr novel so a few of the characters have already been fleshed out through two books. Easy stuff there.

5)  With the basic plot, setting, and characters in mind, I'm ready to start the novel. It's time to stop researching and thinking about the characters and plot, it's time to start the story. How do I do this? I sit my butt down in front of the computer, turn the WiFi off, mute the phone, and get started. There's no other way to say it.

It doesn't matter if the beginning gets completely rewritten later or if a character turns out to be a better or worse person than you initially imagined, that'll all be worked out. The only thing that matters now is getting the book started, and then making and sticking to a writing schedule. I like to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day when I'm creating. Today I wrote 1,800. Tomorrow might be 800 or 2,000. I don't beat myself up if I come in under 1,000 but I give myself hell if I fail to write any new words, or fail to even try.

Imagination is like voice recognition software: the more you use it the better it gets. Give your imagination everything it needs to succeed and I promise you'll be pleasantly surprised at how it will reward you.