Ahh. Pantser or Plotter.
Who would have thought that in the world of successful mystery/thriller writers there would be absolutely no consensus about such a fundamental question as: “Do you outline the book in advance?”
When you ask around, it turns out there are some best-selling authors who don’t write the first line until they have the entire book laid out scene-by-scene. While others launch with a bare fig leaf of a story idea. There are those who take the position, “Why not outline since it might save you a boatload of time and you can always deviate if you want?” Then there are the others who think, “What wonderful scenes, characters and story twists would have been missed if the canvas was already partly sketched in.”
Lately, when I’ve been asked the question of which route I prefer, I’ve used the analogy of a cross-country trek. I see the destination on the other side of the forest. Then I plunge in. I don’t know what dead ends I’ll get lost in, what creatures I’ll encounter or what twists and turns I’ll have to take to reach the other side. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At this stage of my writing career, I do want one thing. I want at least the subject matter of the conspiracy at the core of the story. I want that much of the elevator pitch. This is a story about …
But after that, pretty much anything goes. Since I’m writing a series, the main character will always be there. And some recurring characters and themes are there. He’s always dealing with the romantic side of life, usually involving someone new. His grandmother is there. (Although she appeared in the first book totally unplanned.)
But of the dozen most memorable characters in three books, at least half of them were discovered during the writing and not before I began. In Divine Fury, my second book that focuses on the election of a gay candidate for California’s governor, I wrote a few scenes that centered on political events – speeches, press conferences, etc. I needed someone from the campaign at each one. The person I used just grew and grew. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the layer of behind-the-scenes people who run campaigns and offices of elected officials are often much more interesting than the candidates themselves. (A fact recognized by West Wing and by plenty of other writers, of course.) By the time I finished, the character who started out with a side role ended up the star.
It may not be as efficient as plotting, but I doubt I’ll give up the journey. There is a lot of self discovery in the process as well. What do you find attractive in people? In relationships? When you throw a couple of people together not really sure what will happen, you find out. Take a character through an intense experience in love, confrontation or self revelation, and how does he or she react? It probably says something about you.
But I guess the most important reason for keeping a big element of the pantser in the process is, simply, the surprise. If I knew what was going to happen every morning when I sat down to write, I would die of boredom. I guess that says something about how I view life as well.