Muse Monday (Tuesday edition): Feeling through the dark

Yes, we’re a day late again. I don’t even have America’s birthday and drunken Scattergories as an excuse this time.

But: Plotting.

“The Horse Latitudes” is done for the moment and I’ve gone back to work on the Mars novel. By my best estimate, I’m a little over halfway through–I’m at about 43k words of an estimated 80k. But it’s not just about wordcount–feeling my way through the (very) rough plot I have in my head, it feels like I’m about halfway through. When I get my hands around this story, I feel like I’m at the bulge in the middle. To put it another way, if the story is a dark tunnel that I’m feeling my way through, this is where things open up and calm down for a moment before we start the narrower, downhill progression toward the end.

To plot or not to plot? I’m honestly still not sure where I stand on this, and if I were forced to come down on one side or the other, I think I’d probably have to cheat and say that it depends on what you’re writing, and that plotting, far from being an all-or-nothing proposition, happens by degrees. I know some people who work extensively with index cards and notes, and plan every scene out before they write. I know some people who do nothing of the kind. If I ever wrote a mystery, I’d probably have to do a lot of detailed plotting in advance–I just don’t see how one couldn’t, though I’m sure that some people manage it just fine. But the one novel I’ve co-written was only very roughly plotted out beforehand, and the same goes for this solo effort. I really do feel like I’m fumbling along in the dark, feeling out the shape of the thing as I’m writing. Maybe a while back I glanced at a map of the whole thing, but it was some time ago, and I can’t remember every twist and turn, and in any case, the map is unreliable because the terrain is always shifting (I guess that means I fall into the category of writers who feel as though they are “uncovering” as opposed to “building”).

This has some downsides. Among these are that I often find myself in corners where I have to either go back and do some restructuring in the editing phase, or I have to make sure things are clarified further down the line. It also means that there are some narrative lunges and lurches, where I’m still figuring things out, that have to be smoothed and evened so that the whole thing flows better. I feel like what I have at the end of the initial draft is often much messier than it would be if it were better-planned ahead of time.

On the plus side, however, I get to discover the book as I’m writing it. Things happen that surprise me. I expect things to surprise me. When I write myself into a corner, I get to sit down and puzzle out the process of extracting myself, and after some hard thinking things will frequently snap into remarkable clarity.  That “a-ha” moment is a lot of why I do what I do. At times when things are becoming very difficult and I’m not sure if I can continue, what keeps me coming back to the work is often simply what keeps me coming back to any story: a desire to know what happens next.

Finally, there’s the issue of distraction. The truth is that where I’m concerned–and where novels are concerned–I mistrust detailed plotting, not just because I think any hard plans I make might well end up being wrong, but because novels are really pretty terrifying prospects, and I feel like any detailed plotting on my part serves as an aid to procrastination in actually starting the thing. It feels productive, but it’s still not sitting down and writing the story. I know it doesn’t function this way for a lot of people, but I’m pretty sure it would for me, and I know I’ve seen it do so for others. The only way I know how to tackle anything long is to tackle it. Just run headlong into it and trust that the details will sort themselves out. It’s a messy process, but it’s mine. Then again, it may not be yours.

So I wouldn’t make blanket recommendations in either direction. Plotting is just another tool in the toolbox; use it as long as it’s useful and drop it the moment it isn’t anymore. Which I think holds true for most writing practices in any case.

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