When Raymond Chandler wrote himself into a corner he found the best way to escape was to have a man with a gun walk into the room. I loved Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and they all but founded the sub genre of hard boiled literary noir. But he did admit that by the end of The Big Sleep he’d pretty much lost track of the bodies.
We all do.
Hanging narrative threads, forgotten side quests, unfilled plot holes, they’re the hazards of working at length. There’s a couple of ways of dealing with them. First, don’t. Just accept you can’t run down every blind alley to the very end, and trust that not too many readers will notice.
(Pro tip, they’ll notice).
You could trust to your editors and back fill the later drafts, but this relies on someone else picking up the mistake. Or you could story board the whole book and do it as a paint by numbers exercise. It sounds tedious and little constricting, because it is.
In the George R.R. Martin interview somewhere down the page, the big guy talks about the two types of writers he knows – the gardeners and the architect. The first throw out a story seed and wait to see what grows. The latter don’t write a word until they’ve drawn up detailed blueprints and specified ever single nail and nut and bolt they’ll need.
There are no such creatures in real life, of course. We all sort of plan and we all let the story run wild, but he’s right. Most of us lean towards one method or the other. Having had the experience of getting deep into Weapons of Choice and realising the half dozen previous books I’d written hadn’t prepared me at all to write it, I went into Designated Targets determined not to get painted into a corner, or lose track of the bodies, or tofall back on random guys blundering into every chapter with a gun.
It worked, sort of. I had much better control of that book than Weapons, and the writing went a lot easier. It was less frustrating, a hell of a lot better structured and I had none of the deadline slippage problems that dogged the first of the trilogy titles.
For book three, however, I went back to the gardener method. Mostly. I had a couple of plot points I knew I had to hit and a rough idea of how to get there, but I gave up on following a strictly mapped out path through the story.
I’d found that although the work flowed with fewer blockages and spills, I didn’t enjoy having to brute the characters through. They had their own ideas about what to do in any given situation and their intentions didn’t always sit well with mine.
It sounds odd, a bit of a wank, even. But I think it’s inevitable when you write point-of-view stories. Or at least it is for me. Why?
When you’re writing third person PoV you’re inside the head of that character. If you’re doing it properly it doesn’t take long before you become the character. I recall Martin saying something about this during the interview. He often finds himself staying with one character for long stretches of writing time, just to stay in their heads. I’ve done something similar with the Disappearance novels, writing whole arcs from, say, Caitlin’s POV, before going back and starting on Milosz.
When you’re writing in-character you really do end up shape shifting into that person. You see the world differently.
It’s just not possible to do that – or I don’t find it possible, anyway – sitting at a drawing board, mapping long narrative arcs for particular characters before you’ve written a word of their story. I found that as soon as I set them in motion, my fave characters had quite different ideas about how things should play out.
So now, I try to have some idea about where a particular book will go, and perhaps a few points it’ll pass through on the way, but I don’t schedule everything like a package tour.
With one caveat.
This method breaks down for shorter titles. Stalin’s Hammer: Rome got out of my grasp because I just set Harry and Ivanov loose on the city with vague orders to bring me back a vast Stalinist plot within ten or twelve chapters. Turns out vast Stalinist plots are harder to wrestle to the ground than you’d think. I also had some issues with Ivanov’s journey under the old city taking up much more time than I’d imagined it would, leaving Harry with less ‘page time’ than I wanted.
For Cairo, then, I’ve reverted to story boarding. I’m trying to be flexible about it. I just cut a couple of chapters because I could see they were going to lead me wildly astray and blow the word length out from 35 to 70K. Good value for you. But not so much for me. And not for you either if you’d like me to be getting on with the series.
How do other writers approach the problem of plotting out? Some crime writers go to the trouble of writing entire alternate arcs where any one of half a dozen characters could be the perp, then when they’ve settled on who they want, they just go back and delete anything which isn’t relevant. Or rather they delete most of the irrelevant content. The few bits and pieces remaining in the final draft stay there as red herrings. I seem to recall Agatha Christie did something like this.
Others, who look like they plot, don’t. Lee Child has some fiendishly complicated story lines which look as though they had to have been planned out to the last comma. But no, he insists he is a gardener. He gets the idea and runs with it, even using Chandlers ‘random man with a gun’ device if he writes himself into a corner. He’s also a lot less concerned with real world veracity than, say, Freddy Forsyth. If Child needs to make some shit up to get himself out of a hole, he makes it up and, like a magician, spends his efforts on distracting your eye from the rabbit in the hat.
Should you be plotting out?
I dunno. I’m not you, but I suspect that certain forms lend themselves to it more than others. Big sprawling fantasy epics can afford to sprawl and spread and take three or four hundred page detours because they’re as much about world building as anything. But even they have their limits.
I imagine that Game of Thrones (yes, yes, I know, It’s A Song of Ice and Fire) will have to bring the white walkers and the dragons together in the final battle. But the pace at which the story is advancing for now leaves me wondering whether Martin can get us there in two books – which is all he has ‘planned’.