MAYBE THIS TIME
by Alex London
I mean it.
Just like when I used to organize my trapper keeper on the first day of school, all good intentions, believing that this would be the year, unlike all the years that came before, where I kept the notes in order, never lost a homework assignment, and didn’t clutter every page with unrelated doodles, my math notes jammed up against the teacher’s thoughts on Johnny Tremain, my stumbling French tangling the margins.
These intentions rarely survived the first week of school, and to this day, they rarely survive the actual process of writing a novel.
I want to be a plotter, but I am not.
When I wrote Proxy, my first YA book, I really thought I knew how it went so I felt no need for an outline. I sold it on a partial manuscript to the good folks at Penguin/Philomel with the assurance that I knew where it was going. A year later the book I turned in was nothing like the one I had imagined, and a draft after that, it was different yet again.
For the sequel, Guardian, which I’ve just finished (and in fact never intended to write), I started an outline in a jumbled Moleskine, which quickly devolved into musings on the nature of freewill, love, and regret, ideas for a middle grade space opera, notes on a TV show I will never get around to creating, and endless To Do lists, which always included the note “Make Guardian Outline!”
The book I turned in was not much like the book I had sold to my editor, and the process of getting it done was agony. Every page was another dark alley to wander down, every moment, a giant rat king emerging from the shadows to chase me into unknown precincts.
It wasn’t all horror of course. Getting lost in a manuscript can be a joy. Like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, I meet unexpected friends in the process of my wanderings, characters I never thought I’d know, and I see places I never knew existed. There is always the danger of a wrong turn, of course, the lurking threat that David Bowie and his codpiece will jump out singing with a bunch of muppets and throw my story deep into the oubliette, that prison of forgetting, where manuscripts go to die.
See what’s happened? I didn’t outline this post and now I’ve mentioned David Bowie’s codpiece. This is what happens when you proceed without a plan.
I suppose I should get to my point.
I have written 2 middle grade series of 4 books each, 2 young adult novels, and am in the process of writing another. I sold them all on partial manuscripts and they each turned in to books that had different plots than they’d started with. Yet, in spite of the harrowing process of writing and the unexpected turns the stories take, I’ve never had an editor cancel a contract or make me do a page one rewrite, even though, every time, I think they will. I’m sure they will. I lose sleep over it.
The lessons I’ve learned from this are twofold.
One: Even though I believe writing a novel would be so much easier if I could just make an outline, I am sure that is not the case because the outline of the plot is not what matters nor is it what makes a novel work. If it were, all my books would have been canceled moments after I turned them in.
Which leads me to Two: A novel comes alive with character and voice. The thing that keeps my rambling journeys coherent, that keeps them contained within the novel is the voice. The things that makes my editor turn the pages and know that no matter where I go with it, she’ll want to follow me, are my characters.
Creating complex meaningful characters and crafting a strong narrative voice that fits them…these are the challenges that plotters and so-called ‘pantsers’ share. Once you find them, you can crash through the chaos of a labyrinthine manuscript and come out on the other side. Or you can march the characters through their well planned paces in an outline and find they never lost a bit of life in the process.
I still believe that this next book will be the one I outline, but I also know that if I don’t outline, it will be okay. The novel will find its way, as long as I hear my characters whispering to each other around the next corner, as long as their voices call out to be heard over the din of all the other anxieties that clatter for a novels attention. Plot or Not, we all run to the center of the labyrinth and get there whatever way we can.
Alex London writes books for adults, children and teens. At one time a journalist who traveled the world reporting from conflict zones and refugee camps, he now is a full time novelist living in Brooklyn. You can visit Alex London at www.calexanderlondon.com.