If I were ever to teach a class on novel writing, I’d tell the students how not to do it and cite my process as an example. I don’t outline, so I’d be referred to as a pantser: someone who writes by the seat of their pants. That’s a little too anatomically close to turning out crap for me. So, my writers’ groups in San Diego have always called writing without an outline as being a blank-pager. This is a hat tip to Raymond Chandler who is thought to have said he started writing every day staring at a blank page.
Surprisingly, being a blank-pager in crime writing is not that unusual. I’d say about half the writers I know don’t outline. You’d think we’d spend weeks in advance laying out intricate plots on a spreadsheet before we start writing the actual story. After all, we’re supposed to keep readers guessing as well as produce a plot that makes sense and doesn’t cheat them when we connect the dots at the end.
Outlining seems like the smart, organized way to go. I’ve been called smart many times, but ass is usually attached to the end. However, no one has ever called me organized. Thus, I’m a blank-pager. But, that’s not the “how not to” part of my process. Dropping anchors is.
Now, even as a blank-pager, I have to have a beginning when I start a book and I always have an ending in mind, too. The fun and frightening part is filling in the in-between. My books have action and dead bodies, but I think of them as character driven. An inciting incident sets the plot in motion, but the rest of the story is dictated around the decisions the characters make and the actions they take.
That’s where the anchors come in.
My subconscious works hard when I’m writing — and even when I’m not. Harder than me. So, when it pops a line into my head, I listen. The line may not immediately make sense to me and may not have much to do with the scene I’m writing. Or so I think. I’ll drop an anchor and write the line into the scene. Sometimes, just putting it on paper-or on monitor-will open the door to what my subconscious had in mind (literally) and I’ll incorporate the sentiment into the scene. This often gives the scene more depth and unlocks the true meaning that I couldn’t see. Sometimes the anchor just sinks to the bottom of the story without making a splash. But that’s okay. I’ll take another look at it on revision the next day. Often, the meaning of the anchor will float to the surface and I’ll write it into the scene.
There are times when that anchor just sits on the bottom of my brain for the rest of the year I’m writing the book, pulling down whatever scene it’s in. That’s okay, too, because I can always pull it up when I start the first overall revision of the book. The important thing is not to forget it’s there.
Strange process, sure, but it worked for me in my first three books, including Dark Fissures (December 2016). Another example of how it happened is in the book I’m writing now.
My protagonist, Rick Cahill, is talking to Peter Stone, the most powerful, egocentric man he knows. Stone is always in control of every situation he’s in. A dangerous man who is not afraid of anything. The scene was okay but nothing special. A bit of needed information that didn’t have much punch. Rick accused Stone of something he claimed he hadn’t done. Then my subconscious dropped an anchor. It told me Stone was suddenly nervous about who may have done the thing that Rick accused him of. I didn’t know why Stone was nervous. There was no place in the story for it, yet. I left the anchor in and moved on, but it made me wonder who was scary enough to make Peter Stone nervous and why.
I continued writing another hundred pages and then the people who made Stone nervous showed themselves. They fit perfectly and added another layer of menace to the story as well as a ticking clock. Plus, they gave me an avenue to my next book.
That was one heavy anchor I’m thankful I let drop.
So, if you decide to do it how not to do it like me, when your subconscious talks to you, listen and drop an anchor. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have to pull it up.
Matt Coyle grew up in Southern California, battling his brother and sisters for respect and the best spot on the couch in front of the TV. He knew he wanted to be a writer at the age of twelve when his father gave him The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler. His debut novel, Yesterday’s Echo, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, The San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery, the IBPA Ben Franklin Silver Award for Best New Voice in Fiction, and was a Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel. The second Rick Cahill crime novel, Night Tremors, was a finalist of the Lefty Award for Best Regional Mystery and is a finalist for the Anthony Award for Best Mystery and a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel. The third Rick Cahill crime novel, Dark Fissures, arrived in December, 2016. Matt is currently writing the next book in the Rick Cahill crime series. He lives in San Diego with his Yellow Lab, Angus. Reach him at www.mattcoylebooks.com
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