Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Laurie R. King’s guest post: It’s a Crime II: Plots; or, The Part in the Middle

A couple of months ago, I was having plot problems. This is what happens when you can’t outline for the life of you, and also when a book is being written when your husband is ill and things are crazy and, well, when life happens. But even if life had been normal and calm, I probably would have had plot problems because the book had five separate and fully realized points of view, which meant five separate and fully realized story lines that not only had to run in balanced and interesting parallel tracks, but to intersect at given intervals, and finally come together in a great crescendo at the end.

And it wasn’t—or, they weren’t. I had finished the first draft in good time, back in April, after which I’d talked it over in New York with my editor, who told me some things I knew, and some things I hadn’t seen, and gave me her invaluable viewpoint (which, being based on the question, Will it sell? acts as a necessary counterpoint to my own attitude, which is based on the question, Is it fun?) The editor is a writer’s First Reader. If she doesn’t see something, if she doesn’t like something, it’s a good bet that nine out of ten readers won’t get or like it either. And since, much as I enjoy the writing process, I don’t spend a year on a story just to entertain myself and my patient family, I figure it’s nice to keep the readers in mind at some point before the book is finished.

And the hard fact is, readers appreciate a plot that makes sense, even when the writer herself would much rather play with the characters and then send them off into the rosy mist of sunset with a cheery, “Have a happily ever-after, guys.”

So: plot difficulties.

At precisely this time the good folk running the Book Passage crime writing conference wrote to say that they had scheduled me for a 90 minute discussion with Tim Maleeney about, yes, plot. Doesn’t Fate just love to rub it in?

Whenever I’m desperate for something to say, I look around to see who I can steal from. I picked out one of my favorite books on writing, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—I know it’s subtitled “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” and I’m neither young nor even very new, but it’s never too late to learn, right?—and sure enough, he has a chapter all about plotting. I make my way through that, and I read:

Since plotting is ordinarily no hasty process but something the writer broods and labors over, trying out one approach, then another, carrying the ideas around with him, musing on it casually as he drifts off to sleep…
But, but—that doesn’t help any, that’s what I’m doing now! You mean to tell me even John Gardner had to wrestle his plots to the ground, one point at a time?


My books are three parts first draft and five parts rewrite—not necessarily in the page count, but in the effort. The first draft is a 300 page sketch of what the book ought to look like; the rewrite is when I try to make it actually get there. During that time I use stacks of PostIts, make time lines for the wall, write out the sequence for the overall story and for each of the characters, back-story and present. All this sound and fury (lots of fury) is like a diesel train engine getting its line of cars into motion: much slippage of wheels and billowing of smoke, but the burden jerks, and inches forward, and rattles and moves and fights the urge of inertia.

That’s my mind getting the 390 pages of closely linked action and personality into motion, huge effort that only slowly shows results, until the train is in motion, then picks up speed, and moves from a walk to a jog to a run until last week I sat down to rewrite the final scene…

And The End will come on Friday.


  1. Thanks for this blow by blow description. I am glad of it. Also glad of the fabulous ending you've promised.


  2. I really appreciate the "back story", and fantasize some sort of additional material to accompany the finished product that would give all us readers some insight into how it all comes to be, bringing an added dimension and depth to the final book.

    I LOVE your writing!!