"Why do some authors write literary fiction? Because they can't plot."
-Lee Child, best-selling author of something called the 'Jack Reacher' novels
The words of 'genre' fiction writer Lee Child came back to haunt me this weekend when I was put on the spot by a publisher to basically come up with a 2,000-word story line for a novel on a theme of their recommendation in 48 hours. Yes, that's my indirect way of saying I'm now moving up the ladder of writerly anonymity from Nobody to Nobody-you-know-yet.
I don't want to go into the details for fear of pissing off my superhero agent (he really is, he has the cape to prove it!) who wrangled me the offer, but suffice to say he got them to read my manuscript, they liked my style, and wanted me to write about a topic that they felt would definitely sell.
A few months ago, when I had a well-paying job and a penthouse apartment in Singapore, I would have hesitated and deliberated and generally screwed the pooch by wondering if writing-on-demand is a kind of 'selling out'and entertaining all sorts of ethical dilemmas, but I'm happy to report I was in this instance thoroughly mature and saw it for what it was- a fantastic opportunity.
Opportunity, as it turns out, is not the same as ability. The recommended theme is one I feel passionately about (bonus!), something I've spent a good part of my life being involved in, but I couldn't for the life of me come up with a story. I tried writing a chapter, just letting words run riot, and that happened spontaneously enough. But to predict where those words would take me - no cigar!
After repeated back-and-forths between Super Agent and I, I did somehow manage to come up with a basic premise that is promising in theory, but is a long way short of being a full-bodied plot. The experience made me realize just how important the 'writing process' is to a writer, and how differently writers probably approach their work.
When I sit down to write fiction-be it a novel or a short story or a blog post- I usually have no clue where it's headed. The characters seem to just take on a life of their own, they meet other people, they fall in love and start wars and do the macarena and adopt broken-limbed pets, sometimes against my better judgement. I really have no control over their decisions, I'm merely a medium for their story.
Even on those rare occasions where I already have a plot sussed out, chances are the finished product is nothing like the story I set out to write. This unpredictability, this constant tendency to surprise and titillate, is why I love and enjoy writing so much- a bit like working for Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses. (Shut up Charlie Day, sexual harassment is awesome!)
I certainly don't consider myself a 'literary' writer, but neither do I believe in the concept of 'genre' fiction. I'd go so far as to rate fiction by age appropriateness, but no further. I'd hope to be able to write stories that readers of any type of fiction would consider reading, if not actively appreciate, and that it is the quality of writing, and the tastes of each individual reader- and not the 'genre'- that makes a book palatable.
Anyway, I can't help wondering how others 'write' - do you have storyboards and post-its and the rest of the hupla, or do you feel your way forward, arms outstretched in the dark like I do? Is there a method to this madness? Do you have tips for somebody like me, who is suddenly required to change tack? I'd love to hear if you do. In the meantime, here's hoping Super Agent will come through and completely blind the publisher to the glaring holes in my first attempt at 'plot'.