I will never play “pantser” again. In case you don’t know, a “pantser” is an author who writes by the seat of his pants. I am naturally a “plotter,” an author who plots out the action in his novels, at least at the chapter level, all the way to the conclusion. A plotter knows how the story gets to its end before he writes word one.
Of course, no plotter anticipates every detail and no pantser is a pure stream of consciousness. Usually, I create an outline with a fair amount of detail, but I get ideas as I go along and am pretty flexible about inserting them and creating new threads in the outline. Then, I do a second draft in which I work all the unanticipated ideas of the later chapters back into the first few chapters. One thing I’ve learned is that, unless you’re a genius, you build complexity into a novel by such retroactive “layering.”
But with my latest novel, Snarkey & Putts IV: The Case of the Unchained Immigrant, I had such a strong sense of what would happen in the first few chapters that I threw plotting to the winds. I thought I’d get the first three or four chapters down and then do a detailed outline of the rest. But, after finishing the first three chapter, I got a feeling for the next few chapters; instead of forcing myself to outline, I kept writing. Then, the next few chapters came to me, and the next few.
Now I’ve got thirty chapters and 75,000+ words. The novel’s climax is clear in my mind, but the path to it has become obscure. It could be another 75,000 words away… and I swore to myself that no Snarkey & Putts story would ever be more than 60,000 words.
One of my literary heroes, John Steinbeck, once advised authors to put aside any thought that you would ever finish. I find myself taking comfort in his words, but I have the nagging suspicion that my current predicament is not what he was talking about.
Starting with my next book, I’m going back to being a plotter. The unfortunate truth is, whatever time pantsers save by launching directly into writing, they lose at the tail end by massive editing to get the work down to size. At least, that’s what it looks like I’ll be doing.
While I wrestle with this problem, here’s the latest of my YouTube videos, my humble self reading an excerpt from Snarkey & Putts, Paranormal Attorneys-At-Law III: The Case of the Canine’s Curse, a tid-bit from a chapter entitled, “Dog Rescue.” Pardon the fierce countenance. I was getting into it.
At the moment, I’m taking a break from writing my Snarkey & Putts: Paranormal Attorneys-at-Law series. I’ll be publishing the ebook edition of the second story (the first full-length novel in the series), The Case of the Ghastly Ghostwriter, later this week on Amazon. A paperback edition will follow once I figure out how I messed up the ISBN.
The third story, another full-length novel, The Case of the Canine’s Curse, is written and out to beta readers. I’m happy with the way it turned out and, IMHO, it’s the best of the three. As good as it is, you really should read the other two first. Each story is independent, but characters and plot elements carry over, so they are best appreciated when read in order.
A fourth Snarkey & Putts story is in my head, but I’m going to let it percolate there for a while. As I’ve remarked in a previous post, I currently plan it as an omage to one of my favorite old TV series.
In the meantime, as a mentor of mine once said, “To rest, it is sufficient to do something different.” The different thing I’m doing at the moment is writing a novel entitled, Mr. Lake. Other than saying that it’s a fantasy woven out of impressions and experiences of my childhood, I’m not going to tell you anything about Mr. Lake or the story. But I want to share an excerpt of something I’ve written today.
I’m certain this happens to all of us authors, but I’m always amazed when it happens to me. Sometimes, I’ll be writing and some wholly unanticipated bit of business will flow from my fingers onto the page. I didn’t plan it, it doesn’t fit into my preconceptions, but it does, unexpectedly, develop the character and, with some nipping here and tucking there, advance the plot.
This experience is not the same as what happens when you go off on a tangent and write something you like, but end up editing it out because it misdirects the reader or slows the story down or isn’t true to the characters. Tangents result from a momentary conceit, a lack of discipline or, as we say at law, a frolic. What I’m talking about is a passage that fits better than what you had intended to write. I believe it’s the result of a writer’s tapping into his subconscious, the place where I suspect all stories come from.
There’s no sense in dragging this out. Without further ado, here’s today’s excerpt from Chapter 8 of Mr. Lake, in which our grade-school narrator, Joe, expostulates on topics ranging from comic books to Naziism, never wandering far from his bete noire and classmate, Larry:
My favorite comic book is “The Flash.” I think Flash has got it all over Superman. Not that I don’t like Superman, but he’s got a power for everything. Flash has only got one power: super-speed. You’d think that’d be boring, but Flash uses it in a million different ways.
For example, if Superman wants to go through a wall, he goes through it. Flash has got to figure out how to go through it. Sometimes, he vibrates all his molecules so fast that he vibrates right around the molecules in the wall and sort of slides right through them. Sometimes, he shakes his arms back and forth, compresses all the air molecules into a pile-driver and punches his way through the wall. Other times, he gets going so fast, he breaks the time barrier and runs back to before they built the wall; then he goes through it ’cause it’s not even there yet.
I figure it’s because Flash, in his secret identity, is a scientist. He’s always thinking. Superman is a newspaper reporter. They ask a lot of questions, but don’t think as much.
I mention this because, one night, a few weeks later, I was lying on my bed after supper, reading an issue of The Flash. At the end of the story, Flash captured Super-gorilla Grodd by holding him up in the air in an “impenetrable tornado” he made by whirling one arm around like a propeller at super-speed. It made me think of Larry because he’s big and about as ugly as a gorilla and he’s sort of up in the air, too. By that, I mean he gets himself belted around by the River Rats to the point where he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
If Larry were less like Grodd and more like Flash, he could get out of this mess with the Brick and the Rats. But Larry’s no scientist. He doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking. If he did, he’d be better off.
But, why should I care? I don’t even like the guy. I don’t even know why I was thinking about him, other than he looked like a gorilla.
That’s what I was thinking when Moe came in and sat on his bed across from me.
I held out my Flash book. “Here, Moe. I’m done. You want it?”
“I don’t want to read that junk. And don’t call me ‘Moe.’”
This was a sore spot. Moe got stuck with Mom’s father’s name, Maurizio; “Moe” for short. In an Italian family, when you get stuck with something, we call it “Tradition.” I was the first-born brother, so I got Dad’s father’s name, Joseph; “Joe” for short. For that reason and more others than I can count, I am a great believer in Tradition. “What do you mean, ‘Don’t call you, ‘Moe’? What am I supposed to call you?”
“Call me, ‘Maury.’”
“‘Maury’?!” I sat up and swung around to face him. “Why would I call you ‘Maury’? Then we won’t be ‘Joe and Moe’ anymore. What’s wrong with ‘Moe’?”
“‘Moe’ makes people think I’m Jewish.”
“Hanging around with Steve Todriss makes people think you’re Jewish.”
Moe thought about it for a few seconds. Then he came to a decision and shook his head. “No, I can’t stop hanging around with Steve.”
“First off, he’s my friend and, second off, he’s got the only basketball hoop in the neighborhood. I’ve got to practice.”
I didn’t want to bust his bubble. He was still just a kid. He didn’t realize yet that no Marino was going to grow tall enough to be a basketball player. “There’s a basketball hoop in the schoolyard,” I suggested.
“In the schoolyard? You want me to walk all the way down there?”
“I don’t care if you walk all the way to China, so long as you’re ‘Moe.’ I threw myself back on my pillow and picked up the latest Green Lantern comic from the nightstand. “I’m not calling you ‘Maury.’ Your name’s ‘Moe’ and ‘Moe’ it stays.” I opened the Green Lantern in front of my face, just so he’d know the question was closed.
A few minutes went by with neither of us talking.
I heard Moe turn toward me. “Why do you bother reading comic books? You’re supposed to be smart.”
“I am smart.” I clued him in. “You can be smart and read comic books. That’s where I learn words like ‘impenetrable.’”
“You should read about history.”
I wasn’t giving up my comic books, so I told him, “You can read about history in comic books. I learned all about Julius Caesar in a Classics Illustrated.”
I heard him turn on his back. From behind my Green Lantern, I pictured him staring up at the ceiling. He asked me, “You know about Hitler?”
“I read up on him. I know about all those Nazi Krauts.”
“Did he really kill all those Jews?”
I turned a page. “Millions of them.”
“He killed people like Steve?”
“Millions of them,” I repeated.
“That’s scary. What was he? Some kind of monster?”
“He was worse,” I said, and this was where knowing some history came in. “You know the scariest thing about him? I’ll tell you.” I shut the Green Lantern and turned on my side to look Moe in the face. “Hitler had a German Shepherd dog. He named her ‘Blondi.’ That’s the scariest thing about him.”
Moe didn’t get it. “What’s so scary about that?”
“It’s the scariest thing of all. Imagine it. He gets a cute, little puppy. He’s gives it a name. He picks it up out of its box. He sits it on his lap. He pats it. He feeds it. He plays with it. He loves it the way you and me love Ginger. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.”
I think I saw a shiver go through Moe right about there. He turned over, away from me, rolled off the bed on the far side and walked out of the room. I didn’t hear a peep out of him for the rest of the night. I went back to reading my Green Lantern.
But I couldn’t focus on it. I kept thinking about Hitler, despite everything he did, always staying a little bit human, right up to the end. He had Blondi with him in the Bunker. He shot her himself so the Russians wouldn’t get her. I couldn’t help thinking, “What would make me shoot Ginger?”
It was the only toehold sympathy could get on the dirty Kraut Nazi but, like it or not, it was there. No matter how much you wanted to shut him up and file him away in a box labelled “Monster,” once you knew that one thing about his dog, for that one reason, you could see a human being peeking out of that box at you, and it wouldn’t go away.
In an oddball way, Larry was something like that with his broken hand. That hand – those bones broken into a million pieces – made a difference in how people thought about Larry. Sure, he was a loser and a bully like Hitler. But then, seeing his hand in a cast, seeing the pain in his face – even if he did ham it up a little – you started to think what it’d feel like to have all your bones cracked and smashed one-by-one with a hammer. You started to feel sorry for Larry, if for nothing but common humanity. You couldn’t help it. You put yourself in his place.
Even I felt sorry for him, and I knew it was his own stupid fault for hanging out with the Rats. But, with me, feeling sorry was as far as it went. With other people, it went further. They started thinking Larry had guts for putting up with his broken hand, like he had a choice, like he was some kind of hero. Before you know it, they’re signing his cast, carrying his books, helping him put on his sling. Even Miss Bazarian, she put up a sign-up sheet for “Larry’s Assistant,” like it was some sort of honor, like being “Window Boy” or “Cookie Girl.”
That’s it for now. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.