The Plot is Thataway

With a blog named “Making it up as I Go”, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t do outlines, but neither am I flying completely by the seat of my pants with no plan as to what comes next. So, pantser or plotter? Maybe I’m somewhere in between.

The best metaphor I have for my process is a road trip. I’m going to New York City. Before I walk out to my car, I have a clear destination in mind, not just the city, but that diner at 58th and Columbus with the delicious chicken parmesan sandwich. Similarly, I have the climactic scene and the denouement clearly in my head before I start writing. The question that remains: how do I get there?

Well, I also usually know where I’m starting from. I’m near Austin, Texas. I have several options on how to get there. There’s a southern route, going along the Gulf of Mexico and then up the Atlantic coast. Or I could go north through Chicago and cut back east across America’s heartland. Or I could head northeast from the start, going up US 79 and then looking for the old Appellation Trail.

At that point, I still haven’t committed myself to either the plotter or the pantser strategies. The plotter (or outliner) would get out all the maps, plot the route, decide where to eat, where to sleep, where to get gas, how long each section was going to take, and what time of day to hit each point. The true pantser would hop in the car and drive, trusting to fate that he’ll show up in New York yet acknowledging that he might pass through Tokyo on the way.

Rather than fully embracing either strategy, I pick a waypoint. I’m going to start by going to Dallas.  I don’t worry too much beyond that, nor do I plan out everything between here and Dallas. Dallas is north, so I start looking for a way to go north. Before long, I find myself on I-35, but rather than making the logical stop for food and fuel in Waco, I find myself stopping off at West, Texas, the kolache capital of Texas and sampling some of the Texanized Czech culture.  Similarly in my story, I pick some event that will move me in the direction of my climax and see what happens on the way there.

Then there’s that detour through Waxahachie, and the next thing I know, I’ve actually gone through Ft. Worth instead of Dallas. But that’s OK, because it turns out that Ft. Worth was right for my little road trip. And so it continues, up through Chicago because that’s what feels right. I opt for Pittsburgh and Albany and then dive south into the city, leaving my car behind in Yonkers and finishing things off by train and by foot.

Writing a novel is a lot like making that kind of road trip for me. Yes, the destination is important, but it’s not the same without hitting all those fanciful detours along the way. The world’s largest ball of string is in Weston, Missouri, and it makes as much an impact on my journey as that one-armed bartender at the orbital port of Tau Ceti Prime makes on the novel’s journey. Yes, both could have been complete without these detours, but it was the detours that made the journeys real.

It does make for a much bloodier edit. The two nights stuck in Buffalo really sidetracked the whole plot and need to be cut, but I had to write the whole alien wedding before I could see that it didn’t fit. That’s simply the price I have to pay. Maybe it’s not as professional as doing the outline ahead of time, but the story doesn’t really come alive for me until I’m into it.

Now, with a slight nod towards the outliners, I did pick up a useful habit during my very first NaNoWriMo back in 2004. As I’m writing my way along, if I think of something down the road, I jot it down in the file below the new text I’m generating. I do what I can to keep those little thoughts in order, putting the bit about Yonkers well after seeing the ball of string in Missouri. It’s a tiny thing, rarely grammatical, and meaningless to anyone but me. Something like:

[ball of string in Missouri… can I make it work?]
[Try for Chicago, then east.]
[How far out of the way would Detroit be?]
[Switch to the train in Yonkers. Funny name… do something with that?]

The parts immediately ahead of where I’m writing tend to fill up with more detail, because I can envision those scenes (or that part of the road trip) more easily than the stuff that’s further away. Plus, when I stop in the middle of a scene, which I often do, I can put in a little note about what comes next.

As I go, those parts get written, and the little notes are erased. Maybe that counts as some kind of quasi-outline, but it never exists all at once, and it washes away by the time I finish. Rather than a proper map, I tend to think of them as notes scrawled on the back of a McDonald’s bag, “turn right at US 20 for the Rise N Roll bakery”. That scrap will be gone as soon as the angel food cake is in my hand. If I ever managed to save them, they would be the running commentary on a novel that wasn’t quite what I actually wrote.

So that’s what I mean when I say I’m making it up as I go. How about you?