A friend who’s going to be teaching The Maltese Falcon to a class in Kenya this summer emailed me this question:
Did you say that you don’t fully conceive of the plot of your books before starting to write, that the characters kind of take the actions that they take as you write?
He wants to describe different writing styles to the students, and Falcon seems very plotted out, as though there were a blueprint.
My answer? The opposite of that. I do not conceive of the plot before I start. Not at all.
The same day I got the email I was one of the featured authors at a library local author opened house. I was asked that same question, in different ways, by two different people. Do you outline? You must at least know how the book is going to end, right? Um, no.
One of the many reasons it took me so long to get going on Cold Hard News, my debut mystery novel, is that I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I thought I couldn’t write it until I did.
I wish I knew when I first started what I know now: that every writer is different and you have to let the process find you. Stephen King’s excellent advice is to just start writing. So that’s what I did.
Here’s what I started with:
Plot ideas. A snowbank would melt and a body would emerge. A shooting would happen that looked like one thing, but turned out to be something entirely different (inspired by a real-life shooting in New Hampshire that I didn’t like the investigative outcome of). These are snapshots, obviously, not a fully-formed plot.
Theme ideas. I wanted people’s perceptions of who the good guys and bad guys are poked. Are the rich powerful people above the law? Why do people give them more slack than, say, the pot-smoking ne’er do well or the homeless guy who collects bottles? Is the police chief who everyone revered worthy of the idolization? Was he a better chief than the new one, from away, whose not respected?
Relationships: What happens to friendship and loyalty when it gets mixed up in trauma and the damage people do emotionally to themselves and others? How can two people have the same conversation, but by making assumptions, come out with different ideas of what’s said? What happens when someone makes a mistake that betrays someone they consider a friend, and how do they come back from that?
Characters: I had an idea of who I wanted the main characters to be. I wanted Bernie O’Dea, the female protagonist, to not be one of those superwomen who can beat people up and shoot a gun and bed the handsome guy without thinking twice about it, is beautiful and glamorous and always does and says the right thing. Rather, I wanted her to be someone people could identify with more. I also wanted a variety of women in the book who were strong in their own way, but not cliche characters. Men, too. But mostly women because I feel in a lot of books they end up being superficial characters, and I wanted mine to make a difference.
Setting: I wanted it to portray the Maine I knew so well rather than a storybook, cliche Maine. I also wanted to portray journalism as I knew it and say a lot of things about journalism that I felt needed to be said, but usually weren’t.
Writing: I wanted to avoid cliches and trite characters. I wanted the book to have the voice in my head, rather than a cleansed, generic voice. I wanted to describe things the way I felt them, rather than use the standard traditional words and descriptions. I wanted the writing to have a certain rhythm, even if that meant using sentence fragments or grammar that wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want to “over-describe” or spell everything out for the readers, but let them use their imaginations to paint the picture in their head.
Plot? It came last. As I wrote, I tried to figure out where things were going, and often had to go back and rewrite chapters and add things to make the plot work.
I didn’t write wither of my books, Cold Hard News or the next in the series, No News is Bad News, in a linear way. It was two steps up and one step back from start to finish. I did outline — as I wrote as a way to sort out the plot and scenes and what was going on. With Cold Hard News, I took all the elements above and used it as the foundation and hoped a story would eventually come from it. In No News is Bad News, which is due out the first week of July, the characters were developed and it gave me a chance to explore some backstory and some new themes. But there was no outline and I didn’t know what was going to happen with the plot aside from, again, snapshots and themes.
I know there are writers who have it all plotted out — that’s never going to be me. I’m more interested in getting the story going with the characters, and seeing what happens from there.
Readers are frequently interested in my writing process. Some of it goes beyond explanation as much as I try to explain it. I feel as though the book is in my head, but I have to work like hell to find it. I have to write consistently, daily and for hours, for it to fight its way out from where it’s hiding and get onto the page, scenes emerging I never dreamed would emerge.
When I’m done with a first draft, both times it’s been about 10,000 or 15,000 words longer than my 95,000-96,000 goal. The first time, it depressed the hell out of me. The second time, I was thrilled I had it there — the characters, the themes, even the plot. All I had to do was chip away the excess for it to emerge.
I get asked about writing a lot at author events and appearances. I’m never sure if my long tortured journey, with all its detours and alleys, is what those who ask want to hear. I try to streamline it, make it easy to digest. I often see fear or confusion or the dreaded lack of interest in their eyes as I try to explain.
So the short answer is, no, I don’t know the plot. No, I don’t know the end (except the final scene with my two main characters, which is always crystal clear). No, I don’t outline. At least not before I start. I do lots as I go, endless outlines, some of which I never even look at again. Somehow, out of all that, comes a book.
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, is due out in July. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates and find out more about Maureen and her books at maureenmilliken.com