I used to think I was a plotter. Or maybe I just wanted to be a plotter since it appealed to my control freak side. The idea of sitting down to write with a thoroughly plotted outline at my fingertips enthralled me. I imagined that marvelous document, each chapter broken down into detailed scene-by-scene action, emotion, and descriptions, with character goals and conflicts spelled out in perfect clarity. Writing would be a snap, I thought.
Then I tried it. And failed. Miserably.
I spent months creating that brilliant outline for one of my early books (a Scottish historical that will never see the light of day). But at the first critical turning point in the story, all that meticulous planning fell apart. The hero, who had come roaring to life in the first few chapters, simply refused to react to that pivotal moment the way I (and my beautiful outline) required him to. I could have forced him, of course. And he and anyone who read the book would have hated me for it. So I didn't. I let him react the way he needed to, which sent the story spinning in a direction I'd never foreseen. And all the meticulous planning I'd done from that point forward had to be scrapped.
So, I tried again, carefully plotting the rest of the story from that point on, convinced it would work now that I understood the hero better. Wrong. Within a few chapters, he was glaring at me, arms crossed, a mulish set to his chiseled jaw. No way in hell was he doing what I'd intended. Again.
I'd love to say that after two failures I'd learned my lesson. Nope. To paraphrase one of my favorite fictional characters (Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum), I try never to make the same mistake more than two or three times. Eventually, I figured it out. For me, traveling through a story is a lot like traveling by car along roads I've never visited before. Yes, I can grab a map and plan the route ahead of time, in detail, but all I'm doing is guessing the best way to go. We've all done it--chosen a route that appears to be quick, or short, or interesting, only to find the reality anything but. That 'straight shot' through the city has us caught in traffic so thick we haven't moved for an hour or that 'short cut' between two highways turns out to be little more than a track through the mountains where we can hardly tell the roads from the driveways.
Planning the trip ahead of time is all well and fine, but it's not until I get into the middle of it that I'm able to see where I really want to go.
I still plot, because my stories are too complicated to simply dive into without any plan. But my plotting these days looks more like a trip itinerary that reads: Atlanta to Cincinnati to Denver to Albuquerque. The highlights only. I refuse to plan the details of how I'll get from Cincinnati to Denver until I reach Cincinnati. At that point, I'll look at the situation (how much time I have, how much money, what the weather looks like, and how the traffic reports are stacking up), and make my decisions based on up-to-the-minute data. And even then, I'm okay with things changing. If a road looks good, I'll take it. If not, I won't. No commitments. No meticulous pre-planning. And if it starts to make more sense to switch Albuquerque with Denver, that's okay, too.
My current go-with-the-flow approach to storytelling allows my stories to develop and grow as they need to. And it gives my characters the freedom to be true to themselves, to act and react as they must. I find that this approach makes the writing far more fun, even if I don't always feel in control. Like life itself, I never quite know what the next day, or the next chapter, will bring.