by Tracy Kiely
I tend to be a list maker. I will scribble various versions of “Do This” and “Pack This” and “Buy This” on anything I can find. I will even 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 organized. 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.
So, yes, I plot out my books ahead of time. The idea of writing without an outline makes me want to lie down and put my head between my knees. It’s the same sensation I get when I have to speak in public, do long division, or try on a bathing suit. (As a side note, I’ve been told that in these situations, alcohol can help. I am here to tell you THIS IS A LIE.)
Anyway, back to the topic.
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. As the kitten sniffs around, another set of feet – clad in dark, black boots - enters the bathroom.
(Around this point during the reading, I began to squirm in my seat thinking, “I swear to God, if the kitty gets it, I’m LEAVING!” Yep, cue the hypocrisy alert. I’ll happily read a book in which two or even three people in a book meet with a grizzly end, but if one furry animal is hurt I lose it.)
Anyway, as the kitty watches, 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 black boots approach the kitty (I’m now halfway out of my seat) and then gently picks up the kitty, and rubs her head before putting her back down. The kitten traipses through the dead man’s blood before heading downstairs. The scene ended with the sounds of the wife’s screams 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 kind of use what I call the Colombo method of writing. I start with the murderer and how he or she commits the murder and, more importantly, how they get caught. Once I know that, I work backwards to fill in the rest. 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. (No judging here, we’re all God’s Children and all that, but COME ON!)
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. Over the years, I’ve found that I don’t need to create as detailed an outline as I used to, but I am far from writing by the seat of my pants. I doubt that I ever will be, just as I doubt that there will never be tomatoes in my garden or homemade bread in my oven.
And that’s probably a good thing.