(Silverdale, Washington; August 6, 2020) – My oldest nephew wrote me in January to ask how I write so easily. He’s 15, and is trying to write the first in a series of adventures stories. He wanted to know how I come up with my stories, such as Proud Lion, the first of the “Accidental Detective” novels I’m going to publish via independent publishing this September.
Following my retirement from the Navy, I spent Christmas 2017 with my brother and his family. It was a lovely month filled with laughter, conversation, and being dog-piled in the snow by my nephews…and the family’s goofy German Shepherd (that was an experience!). While there I began working on another Isaac Shepherd murder mystery for the “Accidental Detective” series. Turns out my oldest nephew was watching. In his letter this past January he told me he was stuck by how fast I developed the plot line and knocked out the first few chapters of that particular book. Over the past three years, his interest has been increasing piqued as he listened to me talk about writing the series and laying plans for taking my shot as a novelist.
For my part, I was struck by how well some high-quality headphones, and the focus one can only learn living aboard Navy warships, enabled to me tune-out the rambunctious hullabaloo of my oldest nephew’s three younger brothers. But, that’s another story…
I thought long and hard on my nephew’s questions, and did not get back to him until late February. I sent him a long letter detailing my own history of learning how to write, develop characters, and plan out stories.
Part of the length was required by my aspiration to negate his impression that it all comes “so easily” to me. Yes, I have a talent for writing. However, a talent is simply a latent gift granted by God and genetics that sits in your cells doing nothing unless you do the work to develop it. Michael Phelps has a talent for swimming, but he only became one of the greatest competitive swimmers in the world by working to develop that talent. It’s the same with writing. I’ve spent over 40 years developing my writing skills. I told my nephew not to be intimidated by my speed. He’s just beginning the journey of a million words; I’m several hundred thousand words along the trail by now. I’ve literally had decades of practice.
The harder question to address was the process of how I develop a story’s plot and characters. For today’s conversation, I will focus on how I develop plot lines.
I told my nephew there are many ways a writer can develop the plot before sitting down to work. Some writers create a proper outline, with each chapter listed and each plot thread clearly delineated and tracked. Other writers just sit down and let it come to them as they go. There really is no correct answer, nor is there any way I can recommend one process over the other. Hard outline or free-flow? Free-flow or hard outline? The answer depends on the writer.
When I write a news or feature story, I don’t create a physical outline, but I have one in my head. I know what elements I’m going to highlight, and where they will fall in the narrative. Writing a column like is is very similar. I know what my central thesis is, and I can see an outline in my mind of what information to use and where to put it in the column…including this very sentence about where to put this very sentence!
However, when I sit down to write fiction, it’s a very different experience. I simply cannot draft up an outline and go to town. If I use that approach, I will fail as successfully as the Titanic did.
I’ve learned that my mind uses a very fluid combination of the free-flow method and the outline method, but always starts with the free-flow method. The experience for me is one of the story telling itself to me as a fully formed plot. Some of the specifics are vague, but the story tells itself to me in whole and I cannot start writing it until it has completely revealed its narrative.
It’s rather like the comment Michelangelo made about sculpting, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” I see the whole story in my mind, and then work to free it on the page so others can see it too.
Once I begin the book, things get rather…interesting. This is the stage where I start using a loose outline. I determine the primary point of each chapter, and everything in that chapter leads to that one point. I rearrange chapters if I find the they need to be “stacked” in a different order to allow the story to flow more naturally. And yet, for every book I write, there are whole parts of it that will remain “black” on my mental screen for some time. I know what comes before that part, and I know what comes after. However, that part and those details remain a mystery. When I hit those points, I have stop writing. I have to sit back and reflect until that part of the story finally tells itself to me. This can take days, or weeks (the longest “pause” I’ve had was a five-week period of reflection before the story finally revealed its proper ending to me).
My forthcoming novel, Proud Lion, suffered a false start due to my impatience. The story had nearly revealed itself to me, but I was excited and started writing too soon. I rushed the process, and paid the price. The story began to derail like a train going off a trestle into a ravine, so I stopped and scrapped that effort. 40 pages of work were deleted. I had to relax and just wait. Sure enough, within a week the details of the first third of Proud Lion revealed themselves, and I finished the rough draft of the novel in four months.
I believe writing fiction is like riding a horse. I only have full control over the situation if I work with the horse. If I respect the horse and guide it where I wish to go, the horse will usually cheerfully comply. If I try and force it, the horse bucks and throws me off (here’s looking at you, Proud Lion!).
I told my nephew there is no right method to develop a plot. It all depends on the writer; on who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how their brain is wired. The only way to learn what works for him is to just start writing. Pick a method and see if it works. If not, try something else. Just write.
If you want to write, but are intimidated because you don’t know how to start, then stop worrying and just start writing. You might feel slow, sluggish, and unsure for a while, but over time you will learn who you are and how you think. You will discover how you process information and envision your adventures. Your first efforts may not be good, but so what? Those first efforts are but the first steps on the journey of a million words.
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