Leighton Gage lives in Brazil and writes crime novels set in that country. That’s all he put in his bio, but I’ll go all editorial here and tell you he’s really good and that his books feature an absolutely great Inspector named Mario Silva and they’re published by Soho Press, which is itself a kind of endorsement. Go to Amazon and check out Blood of the Wicked, Buried Strangers, and Dying Gasp. You can get more information about Leighton and his books at http://www.leightongage.com
Q, The world is divided (roughly) between pantsers, who make it up as they go along, and plotters, who plot, or even outline, in advance. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
A: I fall all over it. It’s a consequence of stumbling. And what I generally stumble over is first drafts. My first novel (deservedly unpublished) was created without forethought to plot and without any kind of an outline. That was back in my who needs a freakin’ outline stage.
Uh, maybe I did. The only good thing about that book was the title. (Amazon Snow. Catchy, huh?) Well, hell, I thought it was catchy.
The second book ultimately became Blood of the Wicked. Why “ultimately”? Because, again, I didn’t do any plotting, I didn’t outline, and the first draft wound-up being one long outline. As an outline, it was pretty good. As a book, it sucked.
Check out this speech from Churchill, the one he gave on the occasion of his very first entrance into the House of Commons as Britain’s new Prime Minister on May 13, 1940.
“Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the man said. What an inspiration! I already had the blood. It was in the title, and there were gallons more between the pages. All I had to do, I figured, was to add the toil, tears and sweat. So I toiled. And toiled. And used up lots of handkerchiefs and cans of deodorant spray. Revision followed revision, rewrite followed rewrite. At last it was good enough to publish, was published and, mirabile dictu, got a favorable mention in the New York Times.
The experience taught me two things, one of them about publicity, the other about writing:
1.Not plotting, or outlining, can snag you a mention in the New York Times.
2.Not plotting or outlining, can waste you a hell of a lot of time.
Confusing, huh? Well, crap, it was for me too.
Confession time: I am, by nature, lazy and loath to put any more effort into anything than I absolutely have to.
Fact: I am a perfectionist; averse to turning in any manuscript that isn’t as good as I can get it.
Mutually exclusive? Um, not really. But confusing for some, my wife for starters.
I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker:
A sculptor is up on a ladder, hammer and chisel in hand. The huge statue in front of him is split right down the middle. His wife is looking up at him. Her line: “You never learn, do you, Pierre? You and your ‘one more tap’.”
Can you “improve” a book to death? Some people think so. My wife sure as hell thinks so. I don’t.
But maybe, just maybe, (Thought I to myself upon concluding book #1) there’s a way to maintain quality and save myself some work.
Enter the outline. I decided to give it a try. And it works for me.
Q Why does it work for you?
Because I have learned, the hard way, not to show my outlines to anyone. Maybe you, dear fellow writers, have a different experience. But mine has been that people, certain people, certain important-in-the-process people (not just wives) often start putting in their two cents on the outline. Yeah, on the outline; saves them the trouble of having to wait and read the book.
Does me no good to explain that I never follow an outline exactly, that I keep changing the story as I go along. They’re going to put in their two cents anyway.
Advice to newbies: outline, but tell people you don’t.
Q. How do you actually approach it?
Unlike the venerable, very professional, illustrious and highly-experienced owner of this blog (grovel, grovel, pulling of forelock, rending of garments) I’m still a newbie myself, still developing my technique.
One thing that seems to be working at the moment, at least it has with my last two books, is to begin with the end and outline backward. Does that make sense to you?
If it doesn’t, I’m not gonna bother to explain it. Reading my explanation would be a waste of your time because, if you don’t get it straightaway, you’re not likely to even after I’ve thrown a lot of words at it.
Q. Where do you think your stories come from?
I’m fortunate to be living in a country where a lot of weird stuff happens. My first book, for example, deals with liberation theology and land reform. You got liberation and land reform at work in your country?
Ha! I didn’t think so.
Here’s how the story came about: One starry Brazilian night, I was sharing some wine with a friend of mine, a defrocked priest, also a committed liberation theologian. As the evening progressed, and a long evening it was, he told me many stories of his experiences during Brazil’s most recent dictatorship. Hey, I thought, those stories would make a great book. About a week after that, a relative of my wife’s, and I, were splitting a few bottles of Argentinean red while he told me how his ranch was invaded by a group of landless workers. Hey, I thought, that story make another great book. Still another week went by. My wife went out with a few girlfriends and left me alone with a book about Bishop Oscar Romero and a full magnum of Chilean cabernet. I finished the book, made good progress on the wine, and, for some inexplicable reason, found that all the stories were getting mixed up in my head.
That’s when the epiphany occurred: Why bother to try to sort the freakin’ things out. Everything together is gonna make a great book.
Three weeks, two conversations, one book, a half-dozen bottles of wine. It was as simple as that. But I should have outlined.
My second opus, Buried Strangers, had its origins in a conversation I had in the kitchen of our home. I heard this story about organ theft from Geralda, one of our maids. As I recall, she was washing dishes and I…hey, that’s right, I was drinking a caipirinha.
Maybe it isn’t outlining that’s the writer’s best friend.
Maybe it’s booze.