Finding Your Author Niche

The anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan, is one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, the period between the stories “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Reigate Squire” when no Holmes cases were reported. This fallow period was interrupted only by “The Speckled Band” (one of my favorites), set in 1883. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo spent those years twiddling their thumbs, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.

Each A Year of Mystery volume, published by Belanger Books, includes a dozen stories, one for each month, and even a bonus story or two from that year. Clearly, the Great Detective was capable of multitasking at a high level! The 1885 volume, which contains one of my stories, was published last December, and I asked some of my fellow authors how much experience they had with this very particular mystery genre. Turns out, a lot!

George Gardner’s story, “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb,” was his debut as a Holmes/Watson pasticher, and three of the authors (including me) have had two or three published. But to demonstrate that the genre’s well of inspiration is far from empty, five of the authors have published repeatedly in it and one—David Marcum—has published 118 short stories and two novels involving Holmes and Watson.

“The Faulty Gallows” by David Marcum

Let’s give Marcum’s latest story, “The Faulty Gallows,” a closer look. In endnotes, he tells how in real life John “Babbacome” Lee “famously survived three attempts to hang him” for murdering his employer, and how James Berry, another real-life character, was the official executioner who tried and failed to execute him, repeatedly. Marcum provides pictures of both men, and Lee is dapper in his bowler hat. Berry looks unhappy.

Marcum did a beautiful job taking the raw facts of Lee’s narrow escapes and fictionalizing them. Holmes is asked to involve himself in this fiasco by a mysterious “acquaintance at Whitehall.” This device gives him a plausible reason to investigate and allows Marcum to wrap the circumstances of the botched executions in a larger conspiracy that Holmes tumbles to. By the story’s end, a bit remains unresolvable and, when pressed by Watson, Holmes asks for time. No too-neat-and-tidy ending here.

Holmes fans will realize that the mystery man is no doubt Holmes’s brother Mycroft, but since Watson hasn’t met him yet, he’s a cipher to the story’s narrator. Says Marcum, “Mycroft is a useful tool in pastiches—although as a strict Holmesian Chronologist, [I can’t bring him] in too early.”

Holmes is known for his brilliant deductions, yet “the story structures also allow for a lot of off-stage techniques to advance suddenly toward the story’s conclusion,” Marcum says. Contact with Mycroft, which doesn’t have to be explained in detail, sometimes accomplishes that. Mycroft’s murky Whitehall connections also can give some stories, like this one, a bigger frame.

Read more about Marcum’s Holmes addiction on his blog or visit his Amazon author page.

What Makes Stories Work?

Last week was time off for family business, but if you’ve ever dealt much with the health care “system,” you’ll understand my advice to myself, “take a book.” There’s always so much time sitting around, waiting, and waiting again, that something engaging to capture at least part of your attention is welcome. You don’t forget why you’re there, of course, you just give the extraneous sights and sounds some competition.

The book I clung to was Man Booker award-winner and Syracuse U. professor George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s one that works for writers who want to put more into their writing and readers who want to get more out of their reading. Saunders takes seven stories from four Russian short story masters (Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol) and breaks them down to consider why they work. This isn’t one of those craft books that debates character-driven versus plot-driven or the usual ways stories are analyzed. Instead, Saunders talks about how the stories create the effects they have on readers. So much I wasn’t noticing!

Here’s a small example. One of the stories is Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” which in (very) short is about an arrogant merchant, Vasili, who, with his servant, drives out in a horse-drawn sledge on an errand on a blizzardy day. The master doesn’t listen to the servant’s advice about route and gets them lost; they arrive at a small village, twice, because they are driving in circles; but the master refuses to stay the night; they become lost again; and I won’t tell you the rest, in case you want to read it yourself.

Saunders says that in his work with talented young writers, two factors separate the writers who go on to publish their work and those who don’t: a willingness to revise and “the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.” In the Tolstoy story, because of the kind of person he is, Vasili doesn’t listen to his servant’s advice and gets them lost, because he won’t stop or stay at the village, they are lost repeatedly.

Saunders says, “For most of us [writers] the problem is not in making things happen,” but “in making one thing seem to cause the next.” Why is this important? “Because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning;” it’s what makes them work.

Another gem from this same story is Tolstoy’s laundry. Outside the little village of Grishkino is a cottage with a clothesline, which Vasili and Nikita pass four times in their lostness. Each time Tolstoy describes the articles hanging there slightly differently, the wind-blown shirts waving and flapping their sleeves in increasingly desperate fashion. On their last pass, the laundry is gone. Tolstoy doesn’t make the mistake of explaining the symbolism, he just plants it in the reader’s mind to let it grow in significance. Those little repeats, barely more than a sentence each, escalate the story’s tension, even if a reader notices them only subliminally.

Try it!: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. And read Donald Maass’s blog this week on “Effect and Cause.”

I Saw You!–or Maybe I Didn’t

Unease about the growing use of facial recognition technology has clustered around some by now well-known difficulties: inaccurate results when non-white individuals are involved; inadequate training of personnel who “read” the results; adoption of privacy-invading systems without public knowledge or input; inadequate monitoring of accuracy.

Despite these concerns, use of this technology is expanding in law enforcement, border control, airport screening, even business, including retail. Remember Rite Aid? How’s it really being used? What are the benefits as well as the unintended consequences? These questions create a fertile arena for authors of crime fiction.

Properly implemented, facial-recognition could help make policing more efficient. It has been used to identify a number of the January 6 rioters, whose participation was then verified by other evidence (their own Facebook posts, often). The UK, whose cities are blanketed with camera surveillance, nevertheless still values the human element—a cadre of super-recognizers who “never forget a human face.” That would not be me.

Unfortunately, an identification facilitated by the facial recognition technology sometimes trumps other evidence gathered in more traditional ways. The arrestee’s alibi, for example. No matter how sophisticated the technology becomes, it remains true that a person cannot be in two places at once.

Police departments say the technology is used only to generate leads, and people should not be charged with a crime until there is corroborating evidence. In practice, though, the algorithm’s output often doesn’t mark the beginning of an investigation, but its end. That perception was borne out by a Washington Post story yesterday about. A Texas man has filed a lawsuit against Macy’s (and others) claiming overconfidence in the technology led to his arrest by the Houston police. While in custody, he was sexually assaulted. This is one of a half-dozen ongoing wrongful arrest cases are around the country.

In the U.S., a growing number of state and local law enforcement agencies have available to them the faces of nearly half the adult population. These photos come from various sources—including billions scraped from social media, as well as government-issued I.D. cards, mug shots, driver’s licenses, etc. (In which case I don’t need to worry, because my driver’s license photo looks nothing like me! Though probably it matches up with the eighty or so “nodal points” that define a particular face.) The Georgetown University Law Center’s project on privacy and technology calls this vast database “the perpetual line-up.” And you’re likely in it, no matter how law-abiding you are.

Maybe you’re thinking, “So what? I’m not a criminal. This doesn’t affect me.” At least not until there’s a misidentification. Crime fiction writers should have a field day with this one. It’s one thing in a traffic stop or arrest situation to attempt to verify someone’s identity; it’s quite another to use the database for a fishing expedition after-the-fact. And fish will be caught, possibly using grainy, out-of-focus, out-of-date, candid selfies, to create a list of possible matches. Facebook for a while identified individuals in the photos on our news feeds. My friend’s wife was consistently identified as me. I didn’t think we look at all alike, but the algorithm did, so I understand the reality of misidentifying people.

Police departments in several major American cities are experimenting with street surveillance cameras that can continuously scan the faces of people in real time. More than a whiff of China here. The People’s Daily has reported that China’s facial recognition system needs only one second to scan the faces of its 1.4 billion people.

Warrants aren’t required for a search of facial databases. The investigations aren’t necessarily limited to serious crimes. Defendants may never be told that it was an algorithm, not a human witness, that identified them. People who don’t trust the justice system, may prefer to take a plea deal and never have their case tried in court and face a potentially longer sentence. This means the true rate of false positive identifications is unknowable. All these aspects of the technology and its implementation, good and bad, lend themselves to situations crime writers can exploit.

Graphic by Mike MacKenzie (www.vpnsrus.com) under Creative Commons license 2.0 Generic.

A Brick Through the Window

What makes a short story work for me, as its writer? I’ve been thinking about this in light of the recent publication of my short story, “A Brick Through the Window,” in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery – 1885. Now that my short stories have been published more than 40 times, what’s the engine that drives a more successful writing project?

Most important, I like to key off facts. I’m in awe of writers who can develop a character and plot out of thin air, but it helps me to have something real to chew on. Also important is my emotional investment; I write a better story when I’m mad (!) or excited about something. My favorite one involved rural ne’er-do-wells planning to stage a fight between a bear and a tiger. As a big fan of Big Cats, I’m sure my blood-pressure was spiking until I reached “The End.” That story was written a few years ago, when many states had few restrictions on the private ownership of Big Cats, and four had none at all—no licensing requirements, no standards for animal welfare or public safety. Thankfully, that situation ended in late 2022 with the passage of the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Two of my stories have been published in these Sherlock Holmes anthologies: the 1885 edition’s “Brick/Window” and the 1884 edition’s “The Queen’s Line.” Both started with real situations.

“The Queen’s Line” (sounds like a new underground service, no?) keyed off the tragic 1884 death of Queen Victoria’s son, Leopold. He was the only one of her four boys who inherited hemophilia, although at least two of her daughters were carriers and introduced this life-limiting condition into various royal houses of Europe. My story keyed off vicious rumors that Victoria was illegitimate, because there was no history of hemophilia in her well-documented family line. (Experts now believe she experienced a spontaneous genetic mutation passed on to some of her progeny.) At that time, she and Prime Minister Gladstone were at loggerheads, and pressure was mounting to allow Irish Home Rule. All those facts (the funeral, the rumors, the politics) came together at 221B Baker Street in “The Queen’s Line.”

For “A Brick Through the Window,” I struck a goldmine of intriguing facts. In July, crusading newspaperman William T. Stead (a true Victorian eccentric, pictured) was focused on the problem of young girls from poverty-stricken London families being sold into “the flesh-pots of Europe.” All true so far. In my story, Stead asks Holmes to help his investigation. Holmes is, of course, a bit squeamish about the details, but there was no denying Stead’s sincerity. (You can read about this real-life journalistic episode here.)

At this point, I erred. I asked the editor about word length, and was told “about 10,000” or so. I should have realized he meant the upper limit, when I had meant the lower. Following my false interpretation meant I had to create a secondary plot of some kind!

In real life, Stead, along with a number of upper-class ladies, had also been active in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, originally intended to combat the high rate of sexually transmitted disease in the military. Under these laws, any policeman could arrest and examine any woman he “suspected” of prostitution, even without evidence. Working-class and even middle-class women were pulled off the streets and subjected to humiliating examination not by doctors, but by ordinary police. If declared infected, they were confined to a lock hospital until they either recovered (there were few treatments) or they completed their sentence, which might be as long as three months. Tremendous hardship was thereby visited on children and families.

Because men who frequented prostitutes were neither examined nor punished, these laws ignited a debate about unequal treatment of men and women and became an early skirmish in the battle for women’s rights.

You’ll recall that Dr. Watson was a military medical man himself, and in my story, he is aware of the problem of prostitution near military installations and initially supports these laws. But Stead opens his eyes to the resultant abuses. When Watson understands the inequity in the way the law was implemented, he joins Stead and his supporters in advocating repeal. Meanwhile, Holmes collects evidence on the child prostitution problem with help from the Irregulars.

Back to real life: In August 1885, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of consent from age 13 to 16 and strengthened protections for women and girls; in 1886, the Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed. In April 1912, William T. Stead died aboard the RMS Titanic.

Making Writing Advice Relevant

Authors  may diligently read books about “writing,” which, admit it, can be an effective diversion to put off the actual writing (a list of my favorites is at the bottom of this post). I’ve read a lot of them myself. And, what I’ve learned is that I’m not very good with the theoretical. I’m talking about books that provide general recommendations to do or not do this or that. I can puzzle over what the authors are trying to tell me, but my mind wanders, and the point they’re making doesn’t necessarily stick.

But what I am good at is understanding examples. If the advice-giver provides specific examples, I can extrapolate until the cows come home. Even better, I can create my own examples, riffing off those in the book. I’ve tried this with both novels and short stories. I read a piece of advice, then stop a moment and think about where in my current manuscript such an insight might apply and make a note. Yes, my advice books are marked up scandalously. Yes, the best ones are read over and over again, because the context of where I am in my writing makes such a difference to what I can absorb. Then I weave into my story the changes implied by some piece of expert insight.

Recently, I paired writing a short story about a mysterious contemporary museum with reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, recommended to me by a friend. Saunders takes four Russian authors and analyzes their stories in depth. I read a bit, worked on my story a bit, cross-referenced the two, thought about it, and plowed ahead, back and forth, working the new, deeper ideas into the text. I guarantee Chekov and Turgenev wouldn’t spot the places where my work headed down paths similar to theirs—not in plot or writing style, of course, but in what the Russians’ purpose was in various passages and how they arranged information to achieve it. Invisible though their influence may be, I’m sure my story, such as it is, is stronger for the effort.

A friend likes to say that reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out; it’s the method I used for that story.

Recommended Reading:
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
by Booker Prize-winner George Saunders
On Writing by Stephen King (heard of him?)
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, a real eye-opener for me
From Where You Dream by Pulitzer-winner Rober Olen Butler
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

If you order any of these books using my affiliate links above, I receive a small referral payment from Amazon. Thanks!

The Ending in Our Imagination

Recently my husband and I saw a movie that ended with a few questions still up in the air, and, we asked ourselves, “what happens next?” It was interesting that the two of us, who had seen the same build-up and evolution of the plot and the same characterizations, came to opposite conclusions. That made me think about the endings in novels and how they sometimes leave just an outline at the end for the reader to color in. Let the reader do some of the work!

The endings of stories have been of interest to me since I started this blog more than ten years ago, and below is what I wrote about them then.

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have we said that as we closed our book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For an adult ed class on Dickens, I reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Ask an Author: Melissa Pritchard

In an interview a few years back, award-winning author Melissa Pritchard talked about how she had finally gotten over her hesitation to write about herself and how to put her own experiences—though in exaggerated or embellished form—in her works, in order to achieve a literary effect. It sounds like a brave development, to expose your true self in that way, but also risky in the hands of a less expert author.

When I write a story with a female protagonist, I take care not to model her too much on me, because when I do, I tend to make her “too perfect”—always saying the right thing, living up to expectations (as I would like to do myself; if only). Characters need flaws just like those real people have. It takes experience for an author to come up with characters that are both deeply felt and independently real. Some not-very-good books seem to be less an exploration of character and more an exercise in wish fulfillment, with the author as hero.

Naturally, the sum of all an author’s experiences are present in the imagination like a smorgasbord to pick a little from here and a big serving of there, and the resulting story reflects those fractured bits of reality. But that’s very different from writing a story in which the central character is a (much smarter, slimmer, younger) stand-in for one’s self.

My series of four short stories about young Japanese American newspaper reporter Brianna Yamato are set in Sweetwater, Texas. The Sweetwater in these stories, to the extent it reflects the real town, is a simulacrum of what it was sixty years ago, when I would visit my aunt and uncle who lived there. Brianna is so different from me, in age and cultural background that I can safely write those stories in first person. My “I’s” won’t get crossed. And she’s feisty. She stands up to the Texas Old Boys Club in a way I never would have! Definitely not me.

Pritchard says that when she’s starting a new story, she tries first, second (tough), and third person voices to see which best speaks to her. She relies “on an internal ripple of intuition that manifests physically as a kind of charge in my solar plexus.” When it’s right, it feels right.

She describes how in a story of mothers and daughters—potentially fraught territory there—a conventional approach just wasn’t working. It wasn’t getting her “to the emotionally dangerous point I needed to get to.” This story, “Revelations of Child Love,” was eventually told as a series of sixteen confessions and she needed that right voice and form to “carry the charge and danger the story needed.”

Sometimes, she says, it takes a couple of drafts to find the danger point. When she’s not sure what danger point she’s aiming for, she asks herself what secret she’s keeping from herself. That’s where she’s trying (as a writer) to go and not succeeding. She advises her students to look for those secrets too.

Such probing can be hard and difficult work, and I wouldn’t say I’m especially successful at it. For me, it takes time. In this context, though, I’ve been thinking about a short story I recently finished that took an unexpected turn at the end. I thought it was a kind of horror-story adventure, but realized later it was about trust. How for one character, trust is established, and for the other, it’s destroyed.

Melissa Pritchard has taught at Arizona State University and currently lives in Columbus, Georgia. She’s won a great many awards as the author of four short story collections, including The Odditorium (love the title!) and five novels. Her new novel, Flight of the Wild Swan, will be published next March.

Writers Need Both Sides of Their Brains!

The business side of writing requires that today’s authors (especially new authors) cannot focus solely on their writing. They need to gear up the analytical left side of their brains to think like entrepreneurs. Extroverts make great entrepreneurs. Alas, most writers are introverts. We love to sit alone at our computers and create worlds.

“I don’t want to do all that promotion stuff, and I don’t know how!” is the initial reaction. It’s like telling a boy who loves baseball that, in order to succeed, he must take up needlepoint.

Writers are generally aware they must compete fiercely for discoverability. In recent years, the estimated number of books published (including self-published) in the United States is 4,000,000 a year. Yours is one of them. It takes a lot of effort to have that book noticed. It’s one frozen drop in a Niagara of ice.

There’s a (marketing) flaw in writers’ tendency to hang out with other writers—you know, people who don’t ask, “So when is yo(of a dozen or more) is done. We should be trying to connect with readers. That takes work and as much creativity as goes into the novel itself. “My book is for everyone” isn’t a marketing strategy.

Book groups, e-newsletters, and now TikTok are among the ways to reach some readers, but are they the right ones for your book? Are you comfortable with them? I like book groups, I like the Q & A, and the participants often buy the book, unless the club is sponsored by a library. TikTok’s audience skews too young for my books (half of their users under age 30), but would be perfect for another author.

I like participating in book fairs. They’re fun, but I’ve learned the hard way they aren’t a very efficient way to sell (my) books, though children’s authors seem to do better. And have a lower price-point. At book fairs, I do fall prey to that tendency to hang out with other writers. As we sit or stand there, hoping to catch the eye of a potential customer, whom do we talk to? Each other, of course.

Despite the hurdles, today’s authors have marketing opportunities in both traditional and electronic publishing. A key difference is that traditional publishers are most interested in initial sales. If a book doesn’t do well out of the gate, their efforts to promote it go from almost nothing to nothing at all, and the book vanishes. By contrast, Amazon (Kindle) and other e-publishers are in it for the long haul. Maintaining the e-file is all but free, and if an author has a book success next year or the year after or the year after that, sales of the earlier book/s may very well creep upward too. This can be a boon to writers sitting on a backlist of books that never sold well, simply because they didn’t get a big enough jolt in visibility.

The publishing mountain continues to get steeper, but writers persist. It’s in our bones. And at least one side of our brains. But, like climbing any mountain, you do it one step at a time.

Writing Believable Cop Dialog

Criminal lawyer Repo Kempt wrote an interesting column for LitReactor a while back, “Cops Don’t Talk Like That!” Convinced I’m prey to every bad writing habit going, I read it carefully. I also joined the Public Safety Writers Association, comprising retired cops, FBI, EMTs, military, fire fighters and people who write about them—a great group generous in reviewing members’ ideas and words. They’re my insurance policy against cliched portrayals of law enforcement!

In his column, Kempt emphasized that good dialog is one of the best ways to make law enforcement characters believable. And he offered a tip: listen in to actual police radio frequencies to get a feel for it, or listen to podcasts with actual police from different parts of the country talking about their cases, as there are significant regional differences in jargon. “Figure out where your story is set, and tune into law enforcement transmissions or podcasts in that area.” Works for a story set in the 2020s, anyway.

“Good dialog” is hard to achieve when we’re exposed to a lot of lousy, formulaic dialog from television and movies—and, yes, books. In a display of lazy writing, a lot of writers rely on cliched personalities and behavior to save them the trouble of figuring out something new. For example the cliché of the troubled alcoholic detective doesn’t require a lot of writerly delving; we’ve seen it so many times, we already sort of “know” this character. The author is cheating readers out of getting to more meaningful, nuanced and fresher insights when relying on that trope, or the one where an older cop is near retirement (guilty!) or a jaded veteran is teamed with an idealistic young rookie, or the cop is fighting a custody battle. These are not constant topics of conversation.

Gallows humor between partners or in the squad room is another standby. Some authors—John Sandford (admittedly, I’ve only read one of his) and Tami Hoag—do this very well. A UK author I read recently turned this plus into a giant minus by making every cop statement a launchpad for another cop’s snarky comment. Truly clever comments are appreciated. Reflexive snark becomes tiresome. As one of Kempt’s interviewees said, “Real police dialogue is more normal.”

Believable dialog added a lot to author SA Cosby’s latest, All the Sinners Bleed. The Black sheriff of a rural Virginia county is juggling a lot of difficult issues—racism, a cluster of child murders, a badgering county commissioner. Cosby’s sheriff and his team each have a distinct, convincing personality. I’m especially aware of this because I listened to the audio version ably narrated by Adam Lazarre-White.

In 400 Things Cops Know, author Adam Plantinga points out that cops don’t scream at suspects in the interview room and includes the advice to new officers, “If the public screams at you, don’t scream back. Because if they piss you off, they own you.” In other words, you have to stay (or at least appear) emotionally uninvolved, no matter what. A scene in the last episode of Unforgotten (season 5) violated that principle and didn’t ring true to me. A character made a (self-justifying) confession, and the detective interviewer, not persuaded, slow-clapped his performance. Perhaps she didn’t believe him, but the slow-clap seemed not something a senior officer would do.

And what about grammar? Plantinga says, “Even if you pride yourself on speaking the King’s English, as a cop, your vernacular will soon regress to match that of those you encounter. . . . Hearing mangled diction is the linguistic backdrop of your day and eventually you yield to it.” He quotes Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: “In a room with three people who said She don’t, he couldn’t get a doesn’t out of his mouth.”

How Do I Write? Part 2

woman writing

But if pantser authors don’t know where they’re going (i.e., where the story will end up) how do they get there? I use before-the-fact and after-the-fact techniques to manage this process. Before I know whether I’ll need them or not, I drop in potential clues early on (and make a note of them in the unanswered questions list). It can be anything potentially, but not certainly, important. Then I just keep going. In the early pages of Architect of Courage, the first murder victim has long vertical scars on her wrists, evidence of a serious suicide attempt. I didn’t know whether that would make sense or not as I got to know her better, but hundreds of pages later, it fit the evolving story meaningfully. I credit my subconscious mind for working that one out!

After the fact, when I find a story has worked out a particular way, I may realize that I haven’t laid sufficient ground work. I haven’t described the characters or situation in a way that makes the conclusion, as they’ve said since Aristotle, “both surprising and inevitable.” At that point, I have to go back and find the best places to weave in the necessary missing bits.

Plotters too sometimes find the story escapes the structure they’ve built for it. At the Book Festival where I gave this presentation last weekend, my colleague Jeff Markowitz and I had a long conversation with an author who says she’s a confirmed plotter. She told us she’d been writing a story in which the main character was an injured soldier. All planned out. Very neat. One day she burst out of her office yelling, “The nurses have taken over the story!”

All this discussion about plotting versus pantsing reflects a basic difference not as much in how people write, but why. Plotters have a particular story in mind for their novel and are working to produce the best vehicles for that story. For me, the joy in writing is the joy of discovery. I like to discover what happened, how the pieces fit, in much the same way a reader will.

This takes me back to my opening point from yesterday’s post: what do I want people to get out of my novel? I’ve come to believe, as a lot of other writers before me have, that when I write “The End” at the close of a story, it isn’t truly the end. It’s the beginning. The story will come to its full potential and fruition when readers—working as my unseen collaborators—read it, add to it their own experiences and world views, and find elements there that are meaningful or entertaining for them.

Part 1 of How Do I Write?