First of all: I am a pantser, at heart. More specifically, I am a failed planner. I try to plan the whole story, but as soon as I create the characters, they handcuff me to the fridge and carry on by themselves.
You can see how that would make writing a mystery novel especially challenging.
For my latest novel, “To Cipher and to Sing”, I chose to focus on the few key elements I wanted. Like giant cog-wheels for a clock that had yet to be built. No matter how complex the rest of the mechanism, those wheels had to remain in place, and spin in the direction I’d planned.
Did it work?
Well, almost. I got one wheel, one plot point to remain in place (the murder mystery). Another one had to take a different spin when one of the characters who wasn’t supposed to die, did, and the last plot point encountered a quantum-level paradox and now occupies all my books at the same time, but only at lunchtime on Wednesdays.
The draft, as a result, was a murder mystery surrounded by sudden twists and turns, sometimes at right-angles with reality.
But that’s fine. And the point of this article is just this: keep a good hold on the main plot points and let the story find its way around them. I don’t think I would have been able to plan ahead for some of the more surprising and unexpected events in the book.
As a result, my re-write was similar to a detective’s job. Discovering and connecting clues to the mystery itself to make sure they didn’t contradict each other. Figuring out which of the characters became more suspicious for the reader, and subtly changing dialogue and actions to reinforce such impressions. Leading, but especially misleading, all the way to the next twist.
I stand by my clumsy, failed planner method. It’s true that for the final edit I spent a week patching plot holes the size of Ohio, but the result is a novel which entertained me both writing it and editing it.
Ian Lahey, author, dreamer, and Olympic-level binge-watcher, teaches English Language and Literature in Italy. Apart from writing arguably decent fiction, he also cooks with nearly edible results, tinkers with computer graphics, and does quite a lot of gardening, since he needs to replace all the plants he’s inadvertently killed.
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