I got a pleasant surprise this past week at the writer’s group I attend. The scene I read is one I intended to be pivotal for my character, Lyle, and I’ve been somewhat anxiously awaiting the reaction I’d get from it.
Let me explain a little. If you’ve read this blog regularly, you know that I went through some experimentation with writing methods. I wanted to write a big, sprawling space opera, and I’d read into The Marshall Plan, an outlining method put out by writer/agent Evan Marshall in the book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Briefly, Marshall says that he analyzed dozens of novels—blockbuster novels, I might add—to see what made them such big sellers. And the results of that analysis were part of the genesis of The Marshall Plan. Basically, it’s a step-by-step plan that starts with you picking your genre and ends with a finished novel. The theory he works from is that you get your story laid out in a fair amount of detail so that, by the time you sit down and actually write, all the hard work is done.
There’s some merit to that theory. When you write like I do—seat-of-the-pants—you get false starts or mss that go great guns for a hundred or more pages and then just—stop. It’s the risk you take when you write that way. I like to say that my writing is like a road trip: I know where I’m starting, where I’m gonna end up, and I have a general idea of what I’m gonna see along the way. But, unlike plotting a trip on GPS, I don’t have to stick strictly to that game plan. If I see something interesting that didn’t occur to me at the outset, I can get off the interstate and go look at it. After all, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination. At least for me.
Is this the only right way to work? Absolutely not. When I described it this way to my daughter, she said that she knows where she’s starting at, more or less who she’s going with (i.e., who her characters are) and that’s about it. She starts out the driveway and, to use an old phrase I used to use, follows her front wheels.
On the other hand, I have a friend who works from the outline. If he can’t outline the entire story, he doesn’t try to write it.
I tried The Marshall Plan on my space opera. It was supposed to be a big, thick trilogy. Three books of at least 150,000 words per book.
It didn’t work. I got halfway through the first book, feeling like I was faking it. I’d take out my scene outline (I didn’t follow The Marshall Plan to the letter), study what my next scene was supposed to be, then beat myself bloody writing the damn thing. Not always, of course. Some scenes came easy and I looked forward to writing them. But others were like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.
I think the big problem, for me, was that I knew what was gonna happen. There weren’t gonna be any surprises. And it made me feel like I was a hack: churning out words to get my daily word count—and enough for the scene—and, once I reached that count, closing the file with a sense of relief. I still have that file, and I’ll probably go back and try to write that story someday. I think it’s a good one and I’d like to tell it.
One thing about it I’ll add: it wasn’t all mine, and that was probably the biggest stumbling block. See, I brainstormed with that friend of mine I mentioned above, the one who likes to outline his stories. I’d never worked that way before and I wanted the benefit of his experience. Unfortunately, that meant that at least half the scene ideas were his, and of those that were mine, I bounced them off him and added his input. It was no longer my story. It was ours. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m cut out to write with anyone else. I might be able to write with my daughter someday, and I think that would be the cat’s meow if we could pull it off. But it’ll have to be organic, something we both want to do. No way will I force it.
Anyway, I digress.
I do still incorporate elements of The Marshall Plan in my writing. For instance, he says there needs to be three pivotal points in your novel—basically the classic three-act structure. About a quarter of the way through, you spring your first major surprise on the reader.
I originally planned for Pipeline to be around 100,000 words. That meant that, somewhere around page 80 or 90, I needed to spring my first surprise. In this case, I had Ed Walsh, the detective who works on the 4th Judicial District Drug Task Force, take Lyle to the home (and I use that term very loosely) of a major meth user. He’s a confidential informant (CI in cop talk) for the Task Force. He and his brother have two trailer houses set close to one another. Tyler has the big meth lab in his house because he lives alone. Ed takes Lyle to visit with Jimmy, who only has a small lab in his kitchen sink—strictly for personal use, you understand.
The point of this scene mirrors, in a way, what I felt as I began researching meth. One thing I’m always a little embarrassed to admit is that, even though I’d realized there were similarities, I had no idea that meth and speed are the same thing. Or that speed and crank are. I thought these were, I don’t know, variations on a theme or something. I knew you made speed in a lab, and that having one blow up was vewy, vewy bad. I don’t know why I never made the obvious connection. Heck, I didn’t even know it was called crank because bikers used to transport it in the crankcases of their bikes.
I’ve never been a drug user, at least not beyond nicotine and caffeine. Along with some drinking back in my Army days. I know a lot about drugs, though, cause I used to hang around a former dealer from Riverside, California. I finally wised up and moved on to more wholesome companionship, but I learned a lot along the way. Been to a lot of drug deals, dude. Know how it’s done, more or less. Or how it used to be.
Anyway, the point was, as I learned this, I realized this kind of ignorant naïveté would be good to use in the story. But how? Lyle was a dealer, and a cook.
I threw the idea at my friend, and through the course of the conversation, it came up that Lyle doesn’t really know what meth does. He went online, got the recipe, and then went way out in the back o’ beyond and experimented till he knew he had it more or less right (you can tell by the color if it’s good: the whiter, the better). Then he started making a few connections and dealing.
He never researched it any deeper. He had a need: extra money. He found a way to satisfy that need. That’s all he worried about.
So I went back online, and I researched meth labs, and the houses where they’d been discovered. I got the shock of my life when I pulled up a map on the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that showed toxic lab and dumpsites in the state. All I can say is, there are places in this state you don’t want to just go wandering around. Unless you like the idea of having your skin melt off, that is. Or something similar.
I looked at pictures. I saw burnt areas where nothing will grow. I saw homes that looked like they should be razed. I saw that states have laws saying a landlord is supposed to tell you if the place you’re renting from him has ever had a meth lab in it.
Lyle sold to college kids, basically. Seeing the mess of Jimmy Meadows’s trailer—the dirty kids, the cereal boxes piled around, the lab set up in the sink, all that—was a shock for him. It effected him deeply. And this was the scene I read at group a week ago.
The reaction was quite satisfying. I was afraid I hadn’t made it strong enough, but comment—both in group and written on copies of the ms—said that I’d done exactly what I intended: I’d made Lyle very sympathetic. One of the most prevalent comments was that, even though they’d really liked Lyle up to this point, now they sympathized with him. They kept him at a distance because he’s a dealer and cook. He got caught, and he starts out doing this to stay out of prison. But his reaction to what he’d seen—especially after he got home—really drew them in and made them sympathize with and care for Lyle.
What more could a writer ask for?
I ain’t sayin’ it was perfect. What scene is? I even had a couple of suggestions for re-ordering some paragraphs in a particular part—suggestions that I followed. I’d have to say that only one person there didn’t seem to like what I wrote. He seemed to feel it was a lecture from the author, rather than soul-searching on the part of Lyle, which is what I intended. I don’t make any lectures in this novel, though there was ample opportunity. I let Lyle make some, and I emphasize let. He wanted to, and sometimes I had my doubts, but let him do it in the end. Because otherwise, I’d be cheating the reader out of a part of Lyle Villines. He’d have missing pieces. And the reader would sense it.
And, toward the end of the story, when Lyle realizes who the only person is that could be sending the hit teams after him and the Higginses, it’s a complete surprise not only to him, but to me.
That can only happen if you don’t plan your novel out in advance. And I need that kind of fresh spontaneity to keep the story going for me. If I get surprised at the same time my character does, that out-of-the-blue shock will be conveyed to the reader as well. And that’ll make it a great experience for both of us.
So what’s my real learning experience now? Maybe that I have to learn how to go back and incorporate all the small foreshadowing clues that’ll make the story that much richer. See, I don’t know how the plot will ultimately resolve itself until I write it. It’s a surprise for me. I have a general idea (that destination I spoke of earlier), but let me emphasize general. I may not get there the way I originally intended, and I may end up somewhere else entirely. For instance, I thought I’d stop a major cartel in some way by the end of this novel. Instead, I ended up stopping a new one from gaining any serious traction and exposed a traitor in an existing one. Nowhere in there did I do what I originally envisioned, and the scene played out not in Mexico or Arkansas, as I thought it might, but in Santa Monica, California, on the Third Street Promenade, a parking structure on 4th Street, and overlooking the Pacific, close by the PCH just off Ocean Avenue. A little north of the Santa Monica Pier.
Maybe not Mexico, but still a long way—both in distance and culture—from the hills of Northwest Arkansas.
So what’s the point of this long, rambling post? Well, I’m not sure if there is some all-encompassing point. Mostly, I just wanted to share my quite pleasant surprise at getting the effect I wanted from a scene, and to try and convey how fulfilling that it. I probably did a piss-poor job on both accounts—but those are the breaks.
They say not to make blogs all about yourself, and I try to keep from doing that on this one. My aim is to share things I learn along the way in hopes that they’ll help someone else out there. Believe you me, though: it’s hard not to brag a little on yourself about something like this. Especially when it works out exactly like you planned. That doesn’t happen to me very often.
Keep the faith, man.