This will make sense to the dwindling number of people who remember taking photographs with a Polaroid camera, when, as Anne Lamott says, “the film emerges from the camera with a grayish green murkiness that gradually becomes clearer and clearer.” She compares writing early drafts to watching a Polaroid develop, an inchoate beginning—often a vague mess, in fact—and an almost imperceptible sharpening, a coming into focus, with the people, the setting, everything as the writer sees it.
The question I’m most often asked about my writing is, do I plan the whole book out or do I let it develop as I go along? In writing circles, this distinction is between a “planner” and a “pantser”—a slightly snide reference to people who write “by the seat of their pants.” Most writers use one approach or the other. I use both, depending.
In the opening chapters of the mystery novel I’m finishing now (Sins of Omission), I throw in a lot of unexpected information—scars on a corpse’s wrists suggesting a serious suicide attempt, a snatch of overheard conversation—thinking it may be useful down the road. I also established the chief emotional conflicts for the main character (pride versus shame; bravery versus cowardice; and success versus fear of failing). I wrote about 20,000 words. I had a soup of messy situations, clues and maybe-clues, and a couple of dead bodies. I was at a stopping place, where the characters and plot needed to be reined in so that my eye was on the prize—the solution to the mystery—some 60,000 words ahead. And it would take that many words to get there and plausibly explain everything, consistent with the characters’ personalities and the difficult situations I’ve put them in.
At that 20,000 word mark, when I wasn’t quite sure where to go next, pantsing along, I took a big sheet of paper, wrote down each character’s name, scattered about, and listed every question I could think of relevant to that person. Mind, at that point, I could not answer these questions. But connections started to appear. Arrows. The next place the plot needed to develop was suddenly obvious. For a while, I unfolded that big sheet every morning and organized the plot around the actions needed to address the key questions. Not in 1, 2, 3 order, but in the order enabled by each new event or piece of information. Some could be answered with a single toxicology report from the police lab, some required several chapters of set-up and resolution. Ultimately, I had 36 of these questions. Here are a few:
- Who was Hawk’s father?
- Where did Hawk get the drugs?
- Why did he confess to murder?
- What is Charleston hiding?
- What was Charleston’s relationship with Julia?
- Who killed Julia?
Even this sample reveals the extent of what I did not know as I was writing! Julia dies in Chapter 1, but we aren’t positive who killed her until Chapter 47 (of 52). Every 10,000 words or so, I reviewed the list. Is this question answered satisfactorily for the reader? If not, am I on a path to answering it? Is the Polaroid coming into focus?
Lately, I’ve started describing this process as “solving the mystery along with the reader.” That’s what it feels like and why I can get up every morning at 5 a.m. to write.