The Mutable OR

As a writer, one often gets the question, “Are you an Plotter or a Pantser?” Do you write from an outline or just go ahead and let the plot and characters come to life as they flow onto the page?

The question usually gets presented that way—as a binary choice—in the many books and articles on the subject, and the author goes on to explain the advantages and pitfalls of each approach. The Plotter approach can get detailed and complex … I have a book called Story Engineering that has spawned dozens of downloadable spreadsheets (see illustration). On the other hand, as a Pantser, one can end up pretty deeply in the plot weeds. I wrote my first book, Fatal Score, as a Pantser and published the thirteenth rewrite.

A Pantser at work

The whole damn issue is the definition of OR. If I’d remembered my symbolic logic, I’d have become comfortable with my natural writing mode a lot sooner. To most people, OR means alternatives. One or the other. You go downtown this way or that way. Not both, right? That’s the Exclusive Or in logic. The Inclusive Or says one or both alternatives are okay, more like ‘either/or.’ We most frequently use ‘or’ in the exclusive sense.

Is all this going somewhere, Rogers?

In a Sisters in Crime webinar, the pantser/plotter question was raised to Walter Mosley, the author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series and plenty of other stories. He got the weary look that denotes a person who is about to explain the obvious for the nth time. He said, “Both.” There was a short pause while the interlocutor figured out that he should ask the next question. Always the gentleman, Mosley explained that if you’re writing commercial fiction, you need something like a broad outline or you’re going to have to do a lot of fixing (see thirteenth draft, above). But characters have lives of their own. They grow. They develop. As an author, you had better let that happen or your book will be boring.

So here I am, nearly a decade into the craft that I love, learning an essential truth that should have been obvious all along.


Books — Part II

Last time, I wrote about some literary fiction I’ve read during my hiatus from writing my fourth novel. I figured I had too much material for one blog post, so I made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between Literary Fiction (always intoned with those capital letters) and mysteries (always lower case). I really do hate the distinction. There are fine writers in both groups, and the distinction seems foolish to me. Here are some mysteries I read both for enjoyment and edification:

Dark Sacred Night (Michael Connelly) Harry Bosch, one of the great detective protagonists, works with Renee Ballard, a Los Angeles detective. This is a police procedural at the detail level. Connelly makes the details work for the story, giving a realistic picture of how a detective’s day might actually play out, with all the high points and frustrations rolled in over the story line. Both Connelly and Alex Lettau (below) have a challenge most writers have difficulty overcoming: the technical lecture. Ballard the cop speaking directly to Bosch the former cop would say something like, “LT’s gonna need a DD5.” Both cops … but few if any readers … would know what that means. Sometimes, details are unnecessary, a reality I need to remember. Connolly handles the problem nicely … the narrator steps in and gives reader a line of succinct definition. Just enough to answer the reader’s “huh?” Lettau provides more detail, and repeats definitions so reader will be sure to know the precise etiology of the disease he’s discussing. Balance is the issue, and I can see some rewrite coming in my stuff.

Yellow Death (Alex Lettau): I’m always looking for stories similar to mine. Agents want ‘comps’ to give an idea of what kind of book yours is. In that spirit, I picked up Yellow Death, which has some similarity to the plot of the story I’m writing now, Fatal Cure. Yellow Death is written by a doctor, and the plot detail shows it. The main characters are medical professionals … doctors, epidemiologists, public health officials … and there are a lot of them. Most would speak to each other in medical dialect, leaving most readers scratching their heads. The detailed medical terminology gives an air of authenticity to the story, a good thing. But Lettau stops and explains his terms almost every time a technical conversation occurs. That slows plot development, and the idea of imminent catastrophe (five days!) needs the plot to move quickly. A learning experience for me, since my series leans toward technical jargon.

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell):  Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, is surely one of the great British mystery writers. I said in my review that reading it reminded me of watching a tree sloth make its way slowly along its arboreal path. That wasn’t meant as an insult; the slow ballet of the tree sloth is beautiful, and its slowness allows appreciation of each movement. Vine’s plot moves that way.  I did have a difficult time keeping attention on the reading. The slow, slow, slow development played a part, but I didn’t particularly like the main characters. Learning in detail the inner workings of the mind of a person you don’t much like is a job of work.  Lesson learned. Characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. Fine writing, but I struggled to finish.

One Mississippi (Steve Ulfelder): I admit to bias for Ulfelder, who was my teacher in a marvelous seminar on mystery writing several years ago and was nice enough to review my first book. That said, this new series featuring Arch Dixon and his unlikely sidekick Kevin Day looks really great. Ulfelder has just the right touch of gritty detail when he’s taking us through the underside of Boston. Ulfelder reminds me that a great protagonist is usually one or two steps away from being a villain, or at least an incompetent. I have some work to do there.  Ulfelder is also master of the sentence fragment to punch up tension and keep the story moving.