by L.J. Sellers
Today The Kill Zone is thrilled to host the lovely and talented L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, which I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed. Without further ado...
For the last two days, I’ve been filling in the details of my outline, working out the timeline, and crafting a sizzling ending that brings it all together. I’m already 50 pages into writing Thrilled to Death, and it felt like to time to solidify some plot points. I know many writers don’t do this; they prefer to wing it and see where the story takes them. (Stephen King, for example) I rather envy that style.
But I write complex mystery/suspense novels, and the outline/timeline has become more critical with each novel. In a police procedural, so much happens in the first few days of a murder investigation that a timeline is essential. For complex, parallel plots with multiple points of view, mapping the story in detail is the best way to avoid writing yourself into a dead end or writing 48 hours worth of activity into a 10-hour time frame. I speak from experience.
Then yesterday for the first time, I put in writing what I termed story logic. I’ve always done this in my head to some degree, but this was the first time I put it on the page in summary form. In a mystery/suspense novel, some or much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened.
So I mapped it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .
It was an enlightening process, and I highly recommend it. Summarizing the story logic forces you to think specifically about character connections and motivations. It points out holes and inconsistencies and gives you an opportunity to tighten and improve your plot. It may even force you to rethink and rewrite your outline. But it also may keep readers from getting to the end of your novel and thinking, How did he know that? Where did that come from?
I mentioned the process on a Twitter/Facebook update, and another writer asked me about it. So I explained it to her (in 140 characters!). She got back to me with this message: “I wrote the foundation of my book and did the ‘story logic’ for the rest before writing the book to fill in details. It led me in a completely different direction. I took some risks in the outline and a lot fell into place. I'm psyched!”
I admit, all of this takes some of the spontaneity out of the writing process. But for me, writing isn’t magic. It’s work, and it needs the same detailed planning as any other project. Of course, I’m flexible. If better ideas or connections come to me as I write, I will modify my outline and resummarize the story logic.
Do you map the story logic? Do you outline? Can any of you wing it with complex crime story?
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and has a second Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, coming out next year. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling through the Willamette Valley, hanging out with her extended family, and editing fiction manuscripts.