David Freed

ON BEING A PLOTTER

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s a standard question writers are asked at conferences where readers and authors get together to celebrate the genre of mystery-thrillers. It’s also a question I never know how to answer. Inspiration is an elusive thing. For me, it defies explanation.

Don’t ask me how, but I could be taking a shower, watching TV, eating a burrito, or sleeping, when—bam!— the notion of a plot for a new book will hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Most of those notions go nowhere because they’re either half-baked, been done before, or just plain goofy. But every so often, one will passes muster. And that’s when the hard work starts.

There are essentially two types of writers of mysteries: the “panster” and the “plotter.” A pantser fliesby the seats of their pants, not knowing from one day to the next which way the plot is going or how in the name of all that is holy their hero will ever solve the crime. Writers who follow this approach are convinced that if they don’t know ahead of time which direction their story is unfolding, neither will their audience, making for a less predictable, more compelling read. I’ve tried it that way. Repeatedly. It’s not gone well. I’ve spent days in teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling confusion trying to keep track of all my character, and wasted weeks writing myself down dead-ends that ended up with me pressing “delete.”

All of which explains why I’m a card-carrying plotter. I map out my books before I ever sit down to write a word. It’s akin to putting together a flight plan. I prefer navigating from point-to-point rather than drifting on the wind, hoping I have enough fuel to reach my final destination.

The first thing I do is come up with the beginning, middle, and end of the story. What is the crime that gets the action going? How does Cordell Logan logically get involved in solving that crime? What hurdles will he encounter along the way that might prevent him from achieving his goal? Who is the bad guy that will be revealed in the end? After that, I start putting meat on that skeleton. I write a brief synopsis of each scene as I envision it. I aim for at least 30 scenes. The finished outline typically is no less than 15 single-spaced pages–enough that I’m confident I have enough material to tell a complete story. My outline, however, is hardly gospel.

The story will invariably evolve along the way. Some if not many of the scenes I conceived initially will prove themselves illogical or unworkable. Better plot twists will come to me as my characters come to life. It’s when the characters begin talking to each other that I know I’m in the groove. Your characters talk to each other? Have you seen a psychologist lately? Actually, I live with a psychologist. And, yes, I know it sounds a little crazy, but that’s how it works.

If you have any ideas for Logan’s next adventure, please let me know.

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