Learning To Plot
By Ron MacLean
In 20 years of writing fiction, I've never been accused of putting plot first. Plot as driver isn't where my instincts, interests or strengths lie. So what ever possessed me to write a straight-ahead, plot-driven, quasi-crime novel?
I fell in love with an idea, and that's where it took me. Writing Headlong has been a learning experience (in the way that falling off a cliff face while rock climbing is a learning experience). It has made me a better writer. It has brought me face-to-face with my limitations (hey, that's fun).
Here is my tale of woe.
I'd always wanted to write a crime novel. I'm an admirer of the genre, and for years have kept my ear tuned to an idea that might lean in that direction. For years, it never came – at least not one that could pass the two-week test (idea taped to writing room wall; look at it every day; get excited; answer yes to the question is this something I'd want to devote a chunk of my life and sanity to?). Then it happened. I read an account of a robbery in the Boston Globe that captured my imagination. I posted the article on my writing room wall. Two weeks later, I was not only interested, I had a folder of notes and a brain full of ideas that had attached themselves. Game on.
Six years and five drafts later, including one draft I spent a year on and literally threw in the waste basket, I have a book manuscript I'm proud of. But it has been the hardest writing project of my life. Three key takeaways.
1. Never underestimate what writing a novel will require of you. One reason I was excited to tackle this idea was that it was straightforward. I figured I could knock it out in a year. My first novel had been a serpentine foray into postmodern Americana with no stylistic or structural model and a primary character that was a holograph. It took me seven years from conception to delivery. I didn't want to repeat that. I'm primarily a short-story guy.
Six years. Four major plot threads, which had to come together at one brilliant, shining moment. Inventing along the way, among other things, a national anti-capitalist activism movement and the ins and outs of a major labor strike.
2. It is great – essential, even – to grow as a writer by learning new things. It is incredibly painful to confront one's limitations. Six years later, I am better at plot. And I'm grateful that plot-driven fiction isn't my primary interest or inclination, because – six years later – I recognize that no matter how hard I tried, it would never be my strength.
3. Plot-driven fiction is NOT easier to write (or, Okay, I admit it - outlines can sometimes help). I have always believed there are two kinds of writers. Those who outline and those who don't. I have always been one who doesn't, and I've always felt a certain unacknowledged superiority over those who do. (Yes, I'm that asshole.) To me, the joy has always been in discovery and exploration, and an outline has always seemed a constraint against those things. I'm intellectually restless, and have believed that if I know where I'm going, I will lose interest in going there.
After four drafts and five years (including the one I threw in the wastebasket because it put the wrong plot thread at the center), I repented of my arrogance and made an outline.
Last fall, during a month-long residency in Nova Scotia, in which I had imagined blazing through revision of at least two hundred pages, I outlined instead. I finally learned in my bones the carpenter's wisdom of "measure twice, cut once." I whined. I suffered. I called, emailed and facebooked friends. Occasionally, I saw glimmers of truth and beauty.
I returned from that month with a chapter-by chapter outline I could follow – and with five revised chapters (the first third of the book). I've spent the past seven months bringing that outline to fruition – adjusting here and there, reconceiving occasionally – and I would never have finished this book without it. Lesson learned.
Plot-driven writers, I salute you. I'm glad I wrote this book. I think it's a good one. But I'm going back to what I do well. At least until the next idea comes along.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean