As a licensed pilot, this is why I appreciate maps: because flying without them, especially in unfamiliar skies, ups my stress level and increases my chances of crashing.
As the author of three traditionally published mystery-thrillers (now working on my fourth), I rely on maps of a sort for the same reason. The outline I’ve mapped out before sitting down to actually write each book has helped guide me plot-wise, minimizing the chances of my story taking a fatal nosedive somewhere along the way because of a literary obstacle I hadn’t anticipated at the outset. I’ve tried it both ways, writing by the seat of my pants and writing from predetermined waypoint-to-waypoint. For me, the latter method has always proven less frustrating and ultimately more productive.
Many of my more accomplished author friends might fervently disagree with my preferred modus operandi when it comes to outlining first. They contend that if they don’t know where the plot of their story is headed at any given moment, neither will readers. Thus, they say, the more enjoyable the book will be for their audience. I can’t argue with that kind of logic. Regardless of our respective methodologies as writers, the goal in crafting crime fiction is always to be believable yet unpredictable, to keep readers guessing until the final page is turned. But all I know is that when I’ve begun a novel with no real idea where it is headed, it’s not long before I become totally, head-swimmingly, what-planet-am-I-on, lost. I’ll easily write my way down blind alleys and into box canyons, only to spend days after the fact, staring vacantly at my laptop (when I’m not pounding my forehead on my desk) and yelling at my dog (not really) while trying to numb the anguish of my own incompetence with whatever fermented beverage might be in the house (the truth comes out!), all the while struggling to claw my way back to some semblance of plausible storyland. Ask my wife; it’s not a pretty picture.
Getting lost means more than having to backtrack and ultimately throw away pages. The worst part is becoming discouraged and losing that component essential to finishing any long-form writing project. I’m talking, of course, about momentum. Stuck in a rut, not sure where the plot needs to go, or how to get it there, we can easily find ourselves looking for excuses to do something, anything, less daunting than staring at a blank computer screen. Days turn into weeks, weeks to months. Pretty soon, that terrific idea you once had for The Greatest Book of All Time and dove into with such great vigor has become yet another casualty of inertia, an abandoned step-child, never to be revisited. It’s much less stressful, in my opinion, to know where you’re likely to encounter the thunderstorms of story-telling and plan ahead rather than launching blindly and running the risks of flying into weather that can kill you—or at least, your writing project.
That’s not to say I know the tale’s every detail before I embark on page one. Much of the pleasure of writing fiction comes when characters take on lives of their own and begin twisting the story in ways you never envisioned when starting out. But if you can skew those characters’ actions along a workable plotline that you’ve nailed down in advance, trust me, you’ll be well ahead of the game.
Plot points. Twists. Turns. The sinew of character development. The narrative connective tissue that binds one scene to the next. These are the elements that collectively compel your story to an ending that, by convention, must be logical and satisfying to the reader. If you can get there flying by the seat of your pants, the best of luck to you. You’re vastly more adventurous than me.
Pilots have an expression: “You don’t have to take off, but you do have to land.” I’d like to think the same notion applies to writers. Taking off is no sweat. Landing, though, can be plenty sweaty indeed if you have no idea where you’re landing, let alone how you’re going to get there. Better, I say, to map out a workable and, yes, flexible flight plan before taking to the sky. The last thing any of us wants to do is crash.
David Freed, who grew up in Denver, is an instrument-rated pilot, screenwriter and former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times.
His debut Cordell Logan mystery-thriller, Flat Spin (Permanent Press) was hailed by the Associated Press as “one of the best debuts of 2012.” His second mystery-thriller, Fangs Out, received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and the New York Journal of Books, among others. Voodoo Ridge is scheduled to release tomorrow, May 23rd. The advance reviews have been excellent.