As an author I struggle with plotting, and so I was pleased that today’s guest could share these words of wisdom with us.
To Outline or Not Outline: That Is The Question
I was recently at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland and was scheduled to appear later in the day inside the same pavilion as the great thriller writer Jeff Deaver. Jeff didn’t speak extensively about his new Lincoln Rhyme book, but instead focused his remarks on his process of writing. As you may know, his books take several twists and turns, often with surprise endings. Jeff spends most of his time not on actual prose composition, but outlining. Over the course of many months, he develops a detailed outline that provides him a scene-by-scene schema for the story he wants to tell.
The other extreme is another great horror/mystery/thriller writer, Stephen King. He will be appearing at the National Book Festival this September in Washington, D.C. The book festival is one of the great programs under my purview at the Library of Congress, and we are very excited about King’s appearance this year. In preparation of his visit and to learn from a master storyteller, I’ve been pouring over his excellent book, On Writing. While his books are no less complex than Jeff Deaver’s, King does not outline. He comes up with a premise for his book (“a popular author is nursed back to health by a crazed fan”) and allows the characters and story to develop as he writes. He may know the endpoint of the story, but how he gets there is part of the ongoing creative process as he writes.
I adopt neither the Deaver or King methodology. My process is somewhere in between. I usually devise a fairly comprehensive outline of the sequence of “big scenes.” My books take place over the course of three or four days, much like Deaver’s. In the outline, I work on the story development based upon the days leading up to my main character (Kit Marshall) solving the mystery. What obstacles can I throw in her path? How do I allow the subplots to develop? When and how does she come across important clues and the dreaded red herrings? I try to put the basics in my outline and work from the sequence I’ve constructed.
I'm nowhere as free form as Stephen King, and definitely less structured than Jeff Deaver. Finding out my process was a happy medium between these best-selling authors somehow comforted me. Perhaps there are virtues of both styles to imitate. After all, structure and creativity are crucial components of a novel. The bottom line is that there are no right answers in writing – the only thing that matters is whether an author tells a good story the reader can’t put down.
Homicide in the House
During a government shutdown, Kit’s congresswoman boss is found standing over the dead body of a top staffer she tangled with in front of the press. The police are about to name her as the prime suspect. The weapon was the Speaker’s gavel, an item entrusted to the congresswoman the previous night. The killer knows Kit is on the case. Can she solve the mystery in time to save her job and her life?
Smartphones are great time wasters. I fiddled with various apps as I waited. The next level of “Angry Birds” was within my grasp when I heard footsteps and voices across the hallway. I got up and stood in the doorway to greet my boss.
From the look on her face, she was not pleased. She charged like a linebacker to the exit of the Speaker’s lair with Jack Drysdale on her heels.
“Stop, Congresswoman Dixon. You’re not listening to reason!” From behind, Drysdale placed his hand on Maeve’s left shoulder in an attempt to prevent her from leaving the suite.
Maeve had impressive reflexes. She turned her body toward him and grabbed his wrist with her right hand. “Don’t touch me! Is this how the Speaker’s staff treat members of the House?” Her voice was loud and filled with vitriol.
The gaggle of reporters who had been relaxing inside the anteroom trailed behind me. This was better than a boring pen and pad session. One of them murmured, “I think that’s Dixon from North Carolina.”
This was not a good development, but Maeve didn’t know that the press had a front row seat to her implosion.
Maeve clutched Drysdale’s wrist for several seconds until she let it go. Apparently her physical assault didn’t intimidate him. He ran ahead and stopped directly in front of her.
Stretching his arms out wide to slow her down, Jack made his last stand. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have done that. Please come back in the office so we can sort this out. You’re a valuable part of this caucus and the Speaker wants to work with you on this deal.”
Maeve shook her head. “You guys in House leadership are typical politicians. You can’t take no for an answer. I’m not ready to make a decision. Now get out of my way.”
Unmoving, Drysdale locked eyes with Maeve. She didn’t look away and squared her shoulders. I could almost feel the tension around me as the reporters anxiously waited for the outcome. What was Maeve going to do? Knee him in the groin if he didn’t back down?
After a moment that seemed like an eternity, Drysdale gave in and stepped aside. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and hurried into the hallway to catch up with her. As we exited the corridor, I glanced back to the doorway where I’d been standing. Every reporter was on his or her phone, ostensibly calling in the most salacious story of the shutdown thus far. A junior member of Congress and the Speaker’s top aide had nearly come to blows in the Capitol. A high school reporter could make that story fly.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Colleen J. Shogan has been reading mysteries since the age of six. She writes the Washington Whodunit series published by Camel Press. A political scientist by training, Colleen has taught American politics at Yale, George Mason University, Georgetown, and Penn. She previously worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative staffer in the United States Senate and as the Deputy Director of the Congressional Research Service. She is currently a senior executive at the Library of Congress. Colleen lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Rob and their beagle mutt Conan.
Colleen J. Shogan will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
Follow the tour and comment; the more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here: http://goddessfishpromotions.blogspot.com/2016/05/vbt-homicide-in-house-by-colleen-j.html
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I'm currently writing a novella which will be included in a multi-author boxed set, due to be published in February 2019