I am a list maker. I scribble various versions of “Do This” and “Pack This” and “Buy This” on anything I can find. I have even been known to write down a task that I have already completed, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off my list. Sadly, none of this makes me the organized person I long to be. Half the time I can’t find the list within minutes of making it, and I never actually complete all the tasks. But I keep making them, if for no other reason than the brief moment of order it affords me.
That said, it will come as no surprise to learn that I plot out my books ahead of time. In fact, the idea of sitting down and just writing without an outline makes me faintly nauseous. Years ago I took a mystery writing class in which we all took turns reading our opening paragraph. One woman had an opening I’ll never forget. Her omnipresent narrative told of a small kitten wandering into a bathroom where a man was taking a shower. The man in the shower was singing. The kitten sees another set of feet enter the bathroom. The man in the shower suddenly stops singing and collapses into a pool of his own blood. The wife of the dead man calls out that breakfast is ready. The killer picks up the kitten (!) and then puts it back down. The kitten traipses through the dead man’s blood before heading downstairs. The scene ended with the killer hearing the wife scream at the sight of the kitten covered in blood.
I’m not doing it justice, but we were spellbound. It was a great opening. Someone in the class asked the writer a question about the kitten, and she kind of shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know who is in the shower let alone who killed him.” I was in shock. The idea of not knowing SO MUCH made my head hurt.
Then, to make matters worse, the WOMAN NEVER CAME TO ANOTHER CLASS!!!
I still think of that bloody kitten and that maddening woman. That kind of off-the-cuff writing is alien to me. I have to know who did it and why. I have to know what clues the protagonist picks up that leads to the discovery of the murderer. I know there are some authors who can just sit down and write and see where it goes. But then I know there are some people who grow their own tomatoes and bake their own bread.
Of course, even the best plans go awry, and despite my outline, I’ll find myself with a plot point that simply won’t work. When that happens, a loud expletive can relieve some stress, but it doesn’t solve the problem. I find that if I focus on something else for a while, my mind will clear (well, as best it can) and the solution will slowly rise to its murky surface. Going for a bike ride, watching an old movie, or re-reading a favorite mystery are my preferred methods to clear the fog, but when that doesn’t work I will turn to a fellow writer for help. (I have, however, learned not to have these conversations in public. I’ve found that serious conversations about how the body ended up in the basement tend to alarm others.)
But whatever method I choose, I just have to jot it down on my list first.