Attendees at writing workshops are inclined to argue that the most difficult aspect of putting together a novel is working out the plotline. They maintain that setting up the idea that will generate the action is easy, but that actually putting an outline together can be overwhelmingly difficult. Twenty years ago, Ursula LeGuin was a guest at our local library, along with Mike Bishop. We got into a discussion over whether trying to put together an outline was even a good idea at all. I don’t recall what Mike had to say on the subject, but Ursula stated that many of the ideas that add serious flavor to a novel tend to rise while the writer is actually doing the writing. And that setting up an outline could very easily limit the writer’s perspective. For her, she said, it was better to go into the process with a sense of who her characters were, and the nature of the conflict. At this distance, I can’t quote her, but she seemed to be arguing that much of the creative activity came while she was living through the experience with the characters.
If I’d been operating at a rational level, I’d have considered her perspective, and either agreed or smiled politely. Unfortunately, I tried to show how she’d gone astray. I’d recently finished the first Alex Benedict novel, and all I could see was the importance of knowing what the truth was about Christopher Sim. If I’d taken a minute to think about it, I’d have realized that knowing what was behind the strange behavior of the legendary war hero would have provided all I needed. Instead I jumped in and began to explain why the writer had to have an outline.
It was one of my dumbest moments. Ursula reacted with considerable kindness, explaining why having a lot of detail on the table gets in the way of a creative effort. But she understood my position. And she delivered a kindly smile.
This week, far down the road, I’m trying to put together an idea for an Alex & Chase novel. One, Blame It On the Aliens, is already in the pipeline and due for a release probably in early 2019. I’ve decide to go with a second A&C book because the mood has taken me over. So I’m currently just looking for a mystery that will entrance the reader, and a reasonable explanation. But I’m not worried about details. Ursula was right. (Big surprise there.) The day by day action will take care of itself. The hitch is that, maybe because of passing years, even coming up with just a mystery is more of a challenge than it used to be.