Hang around writers long enough, and eventually you’ll be at a kaffeeklatsch or dinner or late night talk at a hotel bar, and someone will say to you, “Are you a plotter or pantser?”
This, gentle reader, is not a binary question. This is a core question of the writing verse. Do you like to neatly lay out where you are going with a story in synopsis or outline form? Do you put individual scenes on index cards and shuffle them like a tarot deck? Or do you just sit down, start your engine, and roll? And perhaps more confusingly—are you one of those people where it depends on the project? One moment you’re writing an intricately plotted story where you actually number the scenes, and another time, it’s the words flow like a river and you are afraid to stop writing.
After writing and selling three novels on a synopsis and sample chapters, including drawing a timeline spread with an old Boolean gate template, I decided to experiment. I created a synopsis for my next book, which eventually became KINDRED RITES. It was only four double-spaced pages, punching some highlights, as I write like I move through a true labyrinth—I know where the start is, and I can see the center/end. But getting there? That’s an adventure.
So I dove into the manuscript. But every time I added something to the novel I felt was significant enough to explain to an editor, I added it, in italics, to the working synopsis. This went on for something like eight chapters, which in the structure I used at the time was around 200 pages in length. Then I abruptly stopped adding to the synopsis. Because I understood what was happening to the presentation of the tale.
I was adding things. I wasn’t subtracting anything.
So I tend not to write a synopsis anymore, as I am not selling books on synopses. This time I paused in a manuscript to write a number of tiny, ghostly vignettes, which seemed to have nothing to do with the Work in Progress (WiP), but surprise! Looks like the vignettes are keyed in some magical way to be intros to each chapter, written by one of the characters!
I’ve kept a habit from New York publishing that is useful to a pants flyer. Copy editors usually create an alphabetical list of when a character first appears, and the spelling of their name. I use that idea to keep an alphabetical index of characters—name, species if needed, variants names or nicknames, their magic, and relationships to other characters. This has been critical with long-lived individuals, and as I suggest family groupings where characters will refer casually to aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I have had editors say “too many family members?” But in cultures where no one exists independently from extended family, I have to make those names as Real as the person speaking them. And on the fly, as the people may never appear on-stage. (Also at a run through that labyrinth, in the first draft.) Conclusion–if your format is working for storytelling, it’s not wrong. It’s your process for this story.
I propose a third kind of plotting technique; labyrinth walking. Sometimes the labyrinth will be like the medieval form seen in Chartres Cathedral, with tiny points corralling and diffusing energy. Other times they will follow the seven or eleven circle ancient labyrinths, to channel or focus energy, perhaps to confuse winds, or to lead a community through ceremony. Whether it is a female or male spiraling labyrinth is up to the writer.
But all true labyrinths have something in common. You can see where you are going from the beginning. You just can’t walk a straight line to the goal, and you consciously don’t know where all those turns and reversals are going to take you.
That’s all right. You’ll find out. Keep going. Walk the labyrinth.
©2019 Katharine Eliska Kimbriel