It’s one of the perennial questions indie writers like to ask each other: outline a novel ahead of the composition, or make things up as you go along? Do you plan everything ahead, or write by the seat of your pants? Are you a plotter or a panster?
In my experience this is a question that can make writers choose a side and defend it faster than it takes the ink on a gel pen in a fancy notebook to dry. I usually try to stay out of those arguments, but for the record here, I mostly just sit down and start writing. Once I have a semi-solid concept, I’ll start jotting down a few notes and ideas, maybe have some sort of vague notion of themes and how the book might end, but honestly, I’m as surprised as any reader with the stuff I come up with and where my characters take me.
I think it’s the characters that really determine whether we plot or pants as writers (yes, I just made a verb out of the word pants). I just received my professional edits on my fourth novel back from my editor, Gary. Gary’s been in the editing business for a long time. He isn’t one of those weekend course editors; he actually runs a company and has employees, and he’s edited countless books. My point here is that he knows what he’s doing, and I trust his advice implicitly.
Anyway, the fourth novel, W.I.S.E. Men, features two support characters from The Persistence of Memory Trilogy, Graham Beech and Kevin Rye. When the trilogy (at the time, all one massive, unwieldy manuscript that Gary later helped me break up into three novels) was being beta read by dozens of readers, many of them expressed dismay at not getting to know my side characters better. They kept asking for stories about the rest of the gang. The most popular request I got was a story about Miriam Roth, and I’m slowly but surely getting to her, but the second most requested were Kevin and Graham. Readers wanted to know how Graham met his husband and why Kevin was such an ass much of the time. I kind of wondered about the latter myself, honestly. So, I explored his backstory as I wrote it, and interwove it with Graham’s journey. I essentially went on both men’s journeys of self-discovery.
The plot of W.I.S.E. Men, Gary has pointed out, turned out to be secondary to the character arcs. That isn’t to say that the plot is unimportant, it’s just that instead of the characters supporting the movement of the plot, the plot supports the growth of the characters. Gary sees no problem with this, at least not in theory. Superheroes are genre books though, and genre books generally are plot rather than character-driven, and that’s what audiences tend to expect. Gary did point out that I am stylistically prone to stretching and subverting most genre conventions, and that is a very postmodern notion of storytelling, but not an uncommon one. He said to keep the structure more or less as-is (something a writer loves to hear from an editor!).
He did offer some advice for book five though: write an outline first. Yikes! This brings me to the Miriam problem. When I decided the W.I.S.E. team needed a speedster, I knew I wanted a woman in that role, and thought it would be cool to make her a former Mossad operative. Since she was a supportive role for Daniel and Nina, I had the luxury of giving her a rather nebulous background. Now I have research to do. I don’t really mind that; I had to do that for Daniel’s past, for Sumerian mythology, for life in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Ranger training, and all sorts of other things. I rather enjoy it. However, aside from a penchant for James Bond movies and novels, and the T.V. show Burn Notice, I know very little about the “realities” of life as a spy. Spies tend to keep their activities secret out of necessity. Couple with that my having zero knowledge of life in Israel, and it’s a more daunting task than my prior projects.
The real problem though, is the character, herself. What motivates Miriam? How does she feel about her abilities and life’s trajectory beneath that outgoing, upbeat, and occasionally snarky exterior? What did she want to do prior to the event that gave her powers? How did she handle the powers and the new realities of her life? It occurred to me that I know very little about her. The only character that might be even more of a black box to me is Abioye.
All of my characters reflect some aspect of my personality. That was a weird discovery I made post-publication. Daniel reflects my feelings of being an outsider, a bit of a nebbish with some body image issues. Nina has issues with abandonment, and the difficult choices and meaningful sacrifices we make in our lives. I have discovered in W.I.S.E. Men that Graham’s differences with his family’s values reflect some issues I’ve had in my own life. Kevin struggles with choosing an authentic life versus the one he thinks he ought to lead out of a misplaced sense of responsibility and duty. I have no idea how to connect with Miriam, at least not yet.
This disconnect has made it hard for me to start writing. I’ve been dealing with some real resistance when I sit down to compose, lately. I’ve poured my energies into side projects: poetry, marketing the trilogy, etc. to avoid writing Miriam’s story. I think she’s starting to get pissed at me. Maybe Miriam’s the part of me that has a slight Cassandra complex—frustration that no one is taking my concerns seriously when I know I’m probably right.
Even if that’s the case (and I’m not sure it is yet), that leaves me with a problem. I’ve been writing small scenes with her, placing her with characters from her past and from her present, and still haven’t latched onto a firm plot. Gary sort of insisted on a plot, this time. My pantster ways aren’t helping me out here, anyway.
I have a notebook dedicated to Miriam. In that notebook, as of about three weeks ago, is a seven-page handwritten outline, scene by scene, of Miriam’s story. There are approximately thirty scenes, and I can visualize how the deeper themes are taking shape, and how the other characters fit into the novel’s schema.
To quote Gene Wilder’s version of Victor Frankenstein, “This could work!” You can imagine the maniacal, delusional laughter accompanying the exclamation if you wish. Just don’t tell anyone I’ve been writing without my pants.