I have always been a plotter — that is, in the great debate between the plotters, the people who work out their plot in advance of the writing, and the pantsers, the people who work out their plot as they are writing, I’ve always come down firmly on the side of the plotters. It’s not a moral judgment, or even an aesthetic one, it’s what’s always worked best for me. I enjoy the plotting phase of a project, which I will admit looks a lot like goofing off, or playing on the internet.  But what’s actually going on, as I surf Pinterest for visuals, or google recipes, or play yet another game of Solitaire, is that the back of my brain is busy combining and recombining the fragments of the story and creating new scenes and stories. I almost always have a few things that I’m certain of from the beginning — in both Trouble and Her Friends and Water Horse, it was the ending, everything in the plot leading up to, in one case, a moment of stillness, and, in the other, a cataclysm that I hoped would be both shattering and inevitable in retrospect. With Finders, I knew the first major twist of the plot — it was the climax of the short story, and launched everything else that was going to happen. I also knew about Callambhal Above, the great ruined space station where another major event takes place, and I knew the most important thing about the planet that had been the Omphalos, the center of the now-lost Ancient civilization.

I take each beat, each idea, and add it to a file so that I can work out the plot. Some things get dropped, some change, and each new combination leads to more ideas, and then I go back and fill in the gaps between the major beats. Eventually, I have a document that can serve as an outline for a publisher to consider, and a roadmap for me to follow once I start writing. Sometimes, of course, I do some sketching while I’m still working on the plot. Mostly this is to test out voice, or character, or to get down the rough bits of a crucial scene, but lately I’ve been doing enough that I have a 35-50,000 word “ur-draft” that at least has the flavor of the story I want to tell.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have known what would happen.

During the pandemic, I had an idea. I had the characters, and the setting, and an idea of what the ending would be, and instead of letting them simmer, I started writing. I shared the first few scenes with a couple of fellow-writers — for once the first scene I wrote was the actual beginning of the story — and got really useful feedback. I wrote some more scenes, following directly on the first, and got more encouragement. And all of a sudden I was essentially writing a serial, except I was only a few steps ahead of my readers.

That wasn’t comfortable. At all. I’m used to having a solid idea in mind, and weighing feedback against the story I know I want to tell — tweaking the story to make something clearer rather than deciding where it’s going. It felt very uncertain to share a scene and have a reader say, “oh, this is wonderful, are they going to do X?” when X had never occurred to me. Sometimes I just looked mysterious and did something else; sometimes I said, “Yes! You’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what they’re going to do!” — and the story was better for it. It felt very insecure — I hadn’t worked out all the implications, what if it didn’t work? — and I felt as though I was scrambling to catch up with the story itself the entire time, but I think in the long run it made for a better book.

Would I do it again? The short answer: yes, with the right readers. In this case I had a reader who was really into the story and the characters and who — being a fellow writer — asked really helpful questions. Talking plot with her was like the best kind of improv, where the story suddenly expands and takes on new life. On the other hand, there are other kinds of stories for which this wouldn’t work. Mysteries, for one, need to be closely plotted, so that all the pieces hang together and the solution is fair. Collaborations need solid agreement on the plot, or you’ll find that you’ve each written yourself into a corner that the other can’t reach. I still think that I’m more a plotter than a pantser, but I have to say that I liked the eventual outcome when I did it differently.