By Nancy Martin
This year marks the 30th year I’ve been writing and publishing books. What do I wish I’d known when I first sat down at a keyboard to write?
Lots of things. But there’s one biggie that jumps out at me: I spent the first 12 years writing by the seat of my pants — that is, I made up the plot as I wrote the book. At the end of every chapter, I asked myself, “What happens next?” And I wrote whatever I dreamed up. I enjoyed writing that way. My readers seemed to like my books, too. (I wrote romances back then.) But I firmly believe I would have gotten a lot further in my career if I’d done my homework.
I wish I had immersed myself in my craft much earlier than I did. I wish I’d learned everything about how to plot a story much sooner. It’s not that I’d have stopped writing by the seat of my pants — at heart, I’ll always be a bit of a “pantser”— but I wish I hadn’t resisted learning about more technical approaches to writing stories. Yes, I feared I might lose my “muse,” or that the magic might leave if I learned too much.
How wrong I was. My first real instruction about plot came from the late Gary Provost, who taught a wonderful workshop based on fairy tales. Learning to see a story in terms of goal, motivation to reach the goal and the consequences of failure was eye-opening for me. I went home and applied his thinking to my next romance novel — and I received my first starred review! Next up? Dean Koontz’s early how-too book, How to Write Bestselling Fiction, was equally helpful. (Put your characters into “terrible trouble” right away and keep making the trouble worse and worse.) His theories weren’t as complicated as I thought they’d be. As I put Koontz’s information to use, suddenly my own books got a lot more entertaining!
“Why haven’t I learned this stuff before?” I cried to myself.
Syd Field’s book, The Screenwriter's Workbook, taught me about story structure in very basic terms — nothing that really threatened my seat-of-the-pants approach, but certainly enhanced it. At the recommendation of a fellow Sister in Crime, I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer's Journey — and I discovered how the mythic storytelling elements work not just for The Lord of the Rings-style of books, but for mystery novels, too.
Encouraged by the critical success of the books I wrote using Vogler’s theory, I traveled to New York City and took Robert McKee’s three-day course based on his book, Story. That weekend was life-changing! Okay, McKee had more to say about screenwriting than writing novels, but there are gems in his method that work for book-length fiction, too.
I finally realized the more I knew about writing stories, the better a storyteller I became. To my great relief, I wasn’t killing the magic by learning about my craft.
Since then, I think I’ve memorized parts of Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. And lately, I found the Save the Cat books about screenwriting. I admire Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, "The Dark Salon." The Snowflake Method breaks plotting down into so few steps that even the most dedicated pantser can’t be intimidated.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to learn everything I could about how to do my work. I was foolish to be intimidated. It was silly to be worried I’d spoil things for myself. Instead, by learning about plotting, I’ve become a better writer. I only wish I’d done it sooner.
I'm always looking for more ways to learn about my craft. What's your favorite writing-related resource? Please share!
Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels, including the Blackbird Sisters mystery series and the Roxy Abruzzo mysteries. She teaches writing workshops around the country and blogs at The Lipstick Chronicles. Nancy currently serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, editing SinC Links and helping with the Sisters in Crime/Bowker reader research project. Her most recent books are Foxy Roxy and Sticky Fingers (in stores March 30, 2011). For more information, go to www.nancymartin.com.