Saturday, November 14, 2009

Writing Without a Net

By Vicki Delany, guest blogger

Every writer has a different approach to how to structure their novel. Some outline extensively; some do almost nothing in terms of planning. Some concentrate on plot, and the characters follow along; for some character is almost all they have.

Me, I build a story this way: setting-characters-plot. That is, I decide where to set the book, who’s going to be the main character or characters and t
hen come up with a plot. Now that I’m working on a series, steps one and two are pretty much defined before I even begin.

My newest novel is titled Winter of Secrets, and is the third in the Constable Molly Smith series, from by Poisoned Pen Press. This book was a total departure from my usual style of writing, and I’d like to tell you about it.

For most of my adult life I was a computer programmer and then a systems analyst. I write books like I designed computer systems. I start at the end – I know who did it and why – and then I go to the beginning and create an outline that will, hopefully, chart a course to get me to that end. Like designing computer systems: you really should know what you want to achieve (i.e. is this programme going to credit the client’s account or debit it?) before you begin. I have met some computer programmes that I don’t think were ever intended to achieve anything, but that’s another matter.

I was spending Christmas 2007 in my favourite place in the world, Nelson, B.C., the inspiration for the fictional town of Trafalgar. It was snowing, quite heavily, but as is the norm in those mountains, there wasn’t any wind and the snow was falling straight down and not drifting. This, I thought, would be a mess if they had winds like we get in Ontario. And then the opening scene popped into my head.

What a great idea, thinks I. I started writing the first chapter and carried on typing frantically away from there. I knew who died, but I didn’t know who killed him, or why, or even if anyone did! It was quite a strange feeling; a pure leap of hope, that I would find some inspiration down the line.

I was nearing the climax – I knew what I wanted to happen there – but I was still unsure between two possible candidates for the role of villain. Over the course of the writing, I had several people in mind, but as it evolved only two were good prospects. I felt sort of like a real Constable Molly Smith, judging the suspects and juggling clues until, with a burst of inspiration, I solved the crime!

My second drafts are usually a lot of work, but with this book, it was even more so. Because I didn’t know that X was the guilty party, I had to go back and make X know more than they seemed to and Y know less. The personality of X didn’t change much throughout the book, but it had to be tweaked a bit to make the crime more plausible, and to drop a few clues here and there. And all the clues that pointed to Y had to be toned down.

It was a fun way to go about it. Will I do that again? No. It worked because I had a very definite idea for the opening of the book and I was prepared to work my way forward from there. But all in all, I prefer to have a good outline before beginning. When I started working on the next book in the series, Negative Image, I put that net up first.

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Lyn said...

Thanks so much for the post. Good to know that it CAN be done with just a compass and a good knife. I look forward to trying out your work--and I just love the photo. Wonderful hat.

Gink said...

I think its great that you went beyond your comfort zone with your new book to give writing without an outline a try. Takes guts!
- Dori

Sarahlynn Lester said...

That books sounds like it was fun to write!

With my WIP I tried hard to go without an outline. I made it 22,000 words in before I caved and sketched out VERY rough outline that I think will carry me through the end. My outlines are like mini writing assignments or pacing guides more than anything else. E.g. "Chapter 25: Sleuthing. Chapter 26: Dinner with Janet," and so forth.

That way I have a sense of where I'm headed and am at less risk of getting waylaid by a renegade subplot, but I still get the thrill of deciding exactly what to write when I get to each chapter.

Donis Casey said...

I often think I know where I'm going in the story, but am then very surprised at where I end up. Outlining sometimes helps me with the middle of a story, but in my experience, the end always just goes where it goes.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've tried it both ways, and I feel more secure with at least a sketchy outline -- even though I know it will change as I write. Endings are never quite as I imagined them. I tend to surprise myself at the end.

I have to say I've read novels that I'm positive were written without outlines, and they made me wish the authors had used outlines to give the books some semblance of structure.

jenny milchman said...

So interesting how different people work. With mystery/suspense, puzzles essentially, the merit of an outline seems especially strong.

I however write without one. The excitement I feel as I race toward my barely anticipated climax is what I hope the reader will one day feel.

This may be why my mss go through about thirteen drafts, between trusty readers and my agent!

Vicki Delany said...

Thanks very much for hosting me, Sandy and friends. I always enjoy being here at Poe.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I'm the sketchy outline type, too, but like Donis, find that the end is what it is, outline or not. I know where I'm going, but often the characters take over and surprise me--and I like that.