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To Plot or Not – #2

Unlike heaven, stories have multiple inlets. The narrow road, Jesus said, leads to life. Thankfully, as a writer, there’s more than one way to usher my idea into the Promised Land. Whether one plots their wayfork-in-road.jpg or wings it, the important thing is that we arrive at our destination. In the end, if the story works, it doesn’t matter if it was assembled on a storyboard or by the seat of one’s pants.

Perhaps this is why Stephen King’s suggestion that the “spontaneity of real creation” precludes plotting irks me. I mean, who cares how “spontaneous” the idea for The Stand was, as long as it worked.

So is it one or the other? Do you have to be either an SOTP writer or a P&P’er? In his book Lights! Camera! Fiction!, Alfie Thompson suggests a third category, the SIB: Somewhere in Between. This is “a hybrid of the two styles,” a writer who gives herself room for spontaneity within the context of a plot. Becky Miller, in her comments to my last post, said, “I plot the beginning to the end loosely, so I know where I’m starting and where I want to get to. Then I plot the first leg of the journey in some detail. When I get to that point, if I do, because sometimes there’s a detour, then I plot the next leg of the journey in detail.”

As writers, we thrive on “spontaneity” — flashes of inspiration that transcend us. But, for control freaks like me, we need a context, an anvil and workshop to hammer out the crudeness of those raw concepts. Like children, most stories contain something divine (a Spark), but still require rearing. This idea of “plotting loosely,” I think, blends both of these worlds.

Maybe this is why King’s follow-up to the previous quote so intrigues me. From On Writing:

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

This rings true to me, both the idea that stories exist independent of us and that we must excavate them. The way I see it, the excavating part of the process is plotting. Does this denigrate the inspirational aspects of the story? Well, it could. But it needn’t.

Several weeks ago, about 1 AM, I awoke from a dream. It was weird, unsettling, a Kafkaesque-type nightmare. But its image remained etched in my noggin long after my waking and I lay enthralled, unable to return to sleep, puzzling over the scene. I could not escape the sense that an idea had found me; that I had glimpsed “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” The longer it fermented, the more distinct and whole it became. This was more than a case of indigestion, it was inspiration. It was a story.

So I dragged myself out of bed, shuffled to my computer desk and recorded the wraith. That’s all I needed. Thus began the excavation. Over the next month or so, I kept visiting the crash site, unearthing alien bodies and taking blood samples. I am currently in the latter stages of finishing a 5K word short story that could possibly be developed into a novel. And it all started with a dream. I didn’t just sit down at a blank page and start doodling, nor did I bleed my brain for a Plot that just wasn’t there; a seed was planted which I cultivated, watered, pruned, and watched grow.

This process is becoming somewhat normative for me and, I think, it plants me firmly in the middle. It’s a process that requires both Inspiration and Excavation, Spontaneity and Plotting. So I guess that makes me an SIB’er.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Nicole September 28, 2007, 3:09 PM

    Christian novelist Kristen Heitzmann has also dreamed much of the subject matter and plotting of her novels. It’s a fascinating way for the Lord to inspire ideas.

    I think it’s worthwhile to investigate how we work as writers and to come to the place where we have some identification of who we are as writers if for no other reason than to confirm for ourselves that “it” works for us.

    It’s those folks who get dogmatic and insist there are certain ways it must be done or you don’t “qualify” as a “real” writer that bug me.

    Good explanations of the kinds of writers out here, Mike.

  • Nicole September 29, 2007, 3:34 PM

    Mike, you might appreciate Chip MacGregor’s blog today (Saturday) which touches on some of your points.

  • Mike Duran September 29, 2007, 4:51 PM

    Thanks, Nicole. I loved Chip’s post, especially the J.I. Packer quote. And yes, his perspective on formula versus freedom is something I feel strongly about. I do think writer’s conferences have a tendency to formulize the creative / publishing process far too much.

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