Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Clea Simon: On structure

“Do you outline?”

I may get this question more often than some other writers because, at this point, I’m writing mysteries, and mysteries tend to be plot-oriented. For most people, the obvious point of a mystery (crime novel, whodunit, thriller, call it what you will) is to find out who did what.

Of course, I and my “sisters in crime” may also get that question more than some of our author colleagues because we are classed as genre fiction, along with romances, fantasy, Westerns, etc. We turn out product specifically designed for entertainment, as opposed to any higher purpose. And thus we are usually assumed to be more formulaic and less literary. More craftsmen than artists. Hacks.

Okay, I won’t go further with that – not today – but I do want to talk about process here, and today that means how we build our book. Outline, storyboard, seat of the pants, or whatnot. After all, if the book doesn’t move forward, it’s not a book – it’s an extended character sketch. It can also become formless. A good friend is working on a manuscript that, at last count, topped 1,000 pages. She loves her characters and keeps finding new subplots. She wants to crawl into that book and live in it. But at the rate she’s going, I doubt she’ll ever finish it – or that anyone will ever read it if she does. She needs a plan, or some kind of outline.

Now, I’m not a huge advocate of outlining. I know it works for some writers I admire, and is particularly useful for those on tight deadlines. But I tried drawing up an outline for my second mystery. It made things easier – you don’t forget about a character, for example – but the process felt forced to me. I began to feel that the effort I was putting into the outline was draining the juice out of the book, and I ended up abandoning it halfway through.

But I’m not a real fan of simply winging it, either. I did that, more or less, with Shades of Grey and while it was fun, I felt that I basically wrote three or four books and over the course of several years had to work extra hard to extract the main story from the wreckage.

I’m not alone in this: I had the pleasure of interviewing Edgar-winner Tana French not long after her second mystery, The Likeness, came out and we got to talking about process:

“When I start writing, I don’t have a clue as to what happens,” she told me. (You can read the interview here.) “I have a premise, a narrator, and a load of caffeine, and that’s it. ... It makes for a huge amount of rewriting.”

What I’ve found works for me is something in between. I like to start with a premise – a problem or a conflict – and I sort of know how it might resolve. And then I start writing. To get this into manageable form, I now have to the right of my desk a big, white board. On it, I draw a rough timeline. And on that timeline, I stick Post-It notes with bits of dialogue I’ve dreamed, plot twists, character names, and crises. All the tidbits that start to come out once you get into a story. (Some of these read: “Red leaf, red hat!” “Annoying students,” and “He knew I liked ‘pretty things.’”) Sometimes I refer to my board, sometimes not. But the process of jotting down these notes seems to help.

Why does this work for me? I’m not sure, but it does help me process and it has shown me what I care about in terms of plotting. Plus, over time, I’ve come to realize that much of what I and my mystery colleagues call “plotting” is the same as what non-genre writers call “structure.” That is, the underpinning that holds the book together and propels the reader. In a mystery, the basic thrust is usually seen as involving finding the solution to a crime, whereas in a more general (I’m resisting saying “literary”) novel, it may be more about some inner motive: finding oneself, resolving a conflict. Finding girl, losing girl, and finding girl again. But, you know what? They’re all pretty much the same. A mystery that doesn’t engage the characters’ hearts won’t capture the readers, either. As much as the reader wants to know who did the crime, she or he also wants to know why the crime happened – and why the protagonist/cop/ amateur PI/housewife-spy cares. And a non-mystery has to have something happen, too, even if the action is entirely internal or imaginary or subtle. In both cases, what we’re really doing is looking for the big “why?” The reason for the book, and that is what will propel both us and our readers from beginning to end. That is why, ultimately, we will have written our book.

Several years ago, I was on a panel with Leslie Meier, the quite lovely author of such mysteries as Star-Spangled Murder. She was incredibly sweet and encouraging, even though I was then a fledgling, flogging my very first mystery, and she was the established author of a successful series. And when I told her, in confidence, that I wasn’t sure of my plotting yet, she leaned over to me and said, “Plotting is the hardest part for all of us, dear.” Okay, I’m not entirely sure she said “dear,” but that was the essence. She affirmed for me that finding the plot – the structure, the reason – is indeed the hardest part. I’ve felt strangely reassured ever since.

* * *

What's your process? Do you outline, storyboard, or just let the characters take you where they will?

- Clea


  1. Plotting is hard work, but sometimes plot points strafe in like kamikazees and everything rolls along until the next dry spell.


  2. Great post, Clea. I laboriously outline and then toss the outlines out, make more and toss them out, too. The ONLY thing that ever stays the same is the premise and the dramatic question that the character is struggling to answer.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Clea. I wrote my first novel pretty instinctively, spent four years on a second one that died of over-thinking, and am now halfway through a third. This time, I'm working from a premise, a character, and some strong scenes meant to move him from one important point to the next. So far, the rest has shown up as I've needed it, sometimes magically, sometimes with some hard thought.

  4. Like Caroline, I write and discard one outline after another. How can we know before we even start writing what the characters will want to do in chapter 25 or 30? Even when I have a "completed" (ha!) book, huge holes open up in the story upon rereading and I can see what a pathetic excuse for a novel I've produced. Then I go through it all again, patching and filling and chipping away. Having an outline makes me feel secure at the start, but that security turns to anxiety when the story insists on diverging from the outline, and I can either smack the story around to make it conform or I can take the outline to the woods and put a bullet in it. You know what? Writing is hard. :-)