Sunday, November 1, 2009
Writing Process (Part 4) -- Don't Be Afraid to Knock
Based on my tales of materializing pigs and slobbery carrots, you may not believe this, but I'm a big believer in the importance of plot. Earlier I talked about writing as being like a road trip, and to go with that simile, I'm not one of those people who sets out on a journey without a destination in mind. I also always map out places that I intend to visit along the way. In other words, I always have an outline of some sort. I don't just "wing it". I especially always know the ending, or, in the case of Sammy Keyes, who-dun-it. I'm not one of those authors who "discovers along with the reader". Especially in the case of mysteries, I think that's cheating. How are you able to drop fair clues for your reader if you're going to pluck your villain from a cast of red herrings five pages from the end? Anyway, the ending is very important to me, and if I don't have one I really like, I won't start writing until I find one. For me, the most extreme case of this was Runaway. I knew that Holly's teacher was going to give her a journal, I knew that Holly (who lives in bad foster care) would think it was the lamest thing a person could give her--what good was a journal to someone who was being locked up in a laundry closet, and whose head was "Sani-flushed" in the toilet? I also knew that the journal would become Holly's lifeline and most prized possession after she ran away and embarked on a harrowing journey across the country, and that Holly would intersperse poetry throughout the journal which would reflect her growth and ability to finally get down to "the heart of the matter". So I "knew" a lot about this book I wanted to write, but it took me a good, what? seven years to hit on the way to end it. And then, once I did (and got over being all weepy about it--something any teacher will totally get when they read it), I dove in and started writing. So for me, it's imperative to have a strong beginning, a killer ending, and good solid plot posts along the way. But (as you know from the whole pigs and carrots thing) I drive forward not always knowing what I'll run into, and for me that's the fun of embarking on the journey. If I know every little place I'm going to visit, every person I'll meet, everything that's going to happen, why take the trip? I like the surprises. They're what turn the journey from a trip to an adventure. Yeah, it can be a little dicey. It'll make you sweat through passages because you're pretty much in the dark, groping your way along, hoping to be rescued by...well, you don't really know what, but something. You shake your flashlight in an effort to get it to work better, you let out a warbly "Helllooooo? Anyone there???" and you press on. And here's the deal. You have to press on. Even when you're scared that you've lost your way, you have to press on. I've had my characters at the threshold of a doorway and not known what was on the other side more times than I can count. And the interesting things is, every time my character has knocked, someone has answered. Don't be afraid. That's the key. Who answers the door is infinitely variable. You have nothing to lose by knocking. If you don't like who you see, slam the door and try again. But I promise you that whoever answers will be someone of interest; someone you (and your reader) will want to know more about. I think my best example of this is in the second book of my new The Gecko and Sticky series for young readers. In one scene in the book, Dave Sanchez (the hero of the story) is making his way through dark and deadly passages located beneath the "maniacal mansion" where Damian Black (the story's diabolical [and completely mad] villain) resides. My "plot post" was to get Dave inside the mansion via a strange subterranean labyrinth, but how exactly he was going to do this was up in the air. I was just going along with him on this adventure, discovering things as I wrote. It's dark. Dave's scared. And (like me) not at all sure where he's going. Then up ahead, there's a faint glow. A light. Sort of. Dave's not sure what it might be (and neither am I). But as we proceed, the glow gets brighter. Dave imagines that it's the glow of ancient Aztec gold (as Damien is a treacherous treasure hunter who would, for the record, have piles of the stuff hanging around). Then there's a blood-twisting screech. The screech gets louder. And fiercer. (I have no idea what's screeching, and believe me, neither does Dave.) But thoughts of gold persist, and so Dave (and I) press on until we get to a corner--one we must turn to discover what's screeching and glowing around the bend. So here I am, at "the door", and no, I have no idea what's there. But I take a deep breath (and a few trips to the refrigerator) and finally I "knock". And around the corner Dave (and I) discover...oh, good grief, this is going to sound so wacky, but it totally fits with the story so here we go...a (small, moderately cute, but highly intelligent) rhesus monkey inside Damien Black's subterranean espresso cafe. There are cushy couches, recessed lighting, and a full-service coffee bar, and the monkey is trapped inside, not as Damien's pet, but as his coffee boy--Damien,you see, had trained him to brew rare and exotic blends of Himalayan coffee (which Damien enjoyed drinking black, of course). Now, being trapped inside an espresso bar, the monkey had developed a taste for (and an addiction to) coffee and was, in fact, a java-junkie monkey. Dave (being the kind and compassionate hero that he is) frees the monkey only to later learn that the monkey will (in an effort to offset fearsome headaches from caffeine withdrawl) stop at nothing to grab the grounds, jack the joe, make off with the mocha! See? Wacky, I know. But the monkey became one of my very favorite characters, and he will appear (in a pre-planned way) in subsequent titles in the series. But I would never have met him had I been afraid to "get up to the door and knock". So that's my advice for you for this week. Don't be afraid. Go on the adventure. Knock on doors. Turn corners. It's called "organic writing" and some of my very best creative work has come from a willingness to not know exactly how I'm going to get to where I know I'm going. It's like pulling up to a "hole in the wall" diner instead of a Denny's. You don't know what to expect, but open the door anyway and go inside. It's what will turn your trip into an adventure.