Imagine you’re taking a road trip for your vacation. You know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re ending. In between there are landmarks, like the world’s biggest ball of twine in Kansas and the John Deere museum in Illinois, which you just must visit along the way. But your vacation lasts longer than it will take to drive a straight line from start to finish along those landmarks, so you have some flexibility in your trip.
My stories generally start out as a concept. There’s no narrative. There are no characters. There’s just an idea. The Loyalty of Pawns started out as three ideas: genetically engineered soldiers, a Europe that’s subservient to the United States, and a United States government subservient to powerful corporations. But an interesting idea doesn’t make a story. If I want to explore an idea I find interesting, I need a group of characters I can drop into that world who can look at it from different angles. For me it’s the characters that determine the plot, and if I can’t come up with the right set of characters, I can’t develop a story. I’ve never been able to work it the other way around.
So let’s say I’ve got an idea and some characters. If I’m going to turn the ideas into a story, the first two questions I answer is what the story’s beginning and ending are—where am I coming from and where am I going. If I don’t know those two things I’m little better than the person who moves into the inside lane of a roundabout and then can’t figure out how to escape. Suffice to say I don’t worship at the altar of formal construction. How I get from the first chapter to the last sentence is a lot like that vacation road trip.
This is all by way of explanation for how the follow-up to The Loyalty of Pawns moved to my back burner. I had a carful of wacky characters, a few of whom I find to be morally reprehensible—but what can I do, they came out of my head after all. I had my starting point. I had my destination. I had my plans to stop at the corn palace in South Dakota and the world’s largest olive in California. Along the way a few of my characters rebelled. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to make the road trip or go where we planned, but there was a lot more jockeying over the front seat, the radio, and where we were grabbing dinner than I anticipated. We could have finished the road trip and gone everywhere we planned, but we wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. So we went home.
If you’ve followed my overworked, on life-support metaphor this far, you’re probably wondering why I don’t outline more—if I were a better planner I’d have published the follow-up by now. But I find the freedom in this method invaluable. In the case of The Loyalty of Pawns, there was one character who was key to the beginning of the book but became less important as the story went on. I’d always known where he fit into the book’s end, and while it made perfect sense in terms of his development and the story it wasn’t terribly exciting. But as I wrote I realized that there was a perfect opportunity to change his fate—kill him off—and in doing so up the stakes in the book while improving the arc of another character. Would a detailed outline and chapter breakdown have left me the flexibility to make that decision and deal with the consequences? Would I have even been willing to consider such a change that late in the game? There’s no question in my mind that his death was honest under the circumstances and that it served the story and the other characters better than his original fate—which was no less honest.
The long and the short of it is that I have to do what my characters want. They’re not just chess pieces I move about. There’s something of me in all of them; that makes them real enough as far as I’m concerned—real enough to be capable of changing my mind. And that’s the reason that I mulched the book.
I promise next time I’ll actually talk about the book I am writing…