Blog Tour, Day #4 — John M. Daniel

November 27th, 2011

Republican or Democrat?  Cats or dogs?  Designated hitter or put the pitcher at the plate?  These are the perpetual disagreements on which human society turns, but they all pale beside the most fundamental writing conundrum — outline or freestyle?

John M. Daniel should know, if anyone does.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University and Writer in Residence at Wilbur Hot Springs, John has has long taught creative writing and now does so at Humboldt State University Extended Education.  And he’s a novelist and independent publisher. And he comes firmly down on the side of . . .  Well, of . . .

The debate goes on and will probably never be won by either side: should a novel be carefully planned in advance, or should the novelist just begin writing and see what happens?

As a creative writing teacher, I have always sided with the outliners. It has been my claim that even blank-pagers have some idea of what’s going to happen in the story they want to tell. This seems to me especially true of mystery writers. Don’t they have to know in advance who done it—and how, and when, and where, and especially why?

Otherwise it seems to me you’re building a house without a blueprint. You’re making a sculpture out of live mice.

Okay, I tell my students, if you want to be a blank pager, go ahead and try, but be warned: you’ll be in for a lot of revision. A lot of revision.

Taking my own advice, I have carefully crafted novel after novel, outlining them first, with lists and notes, timelines and character sketches. I believe those novels were successful, and some got published and even sold a few copies.

Then, about six years ago, I started a new novel with only a few elements in place. I had a narrator, wise-cracking Guy Mallon, who had starred in two previous mysteries, The Poet’s Funeral and Vanity Fire. I had a setting, the glorious scenery of the Redwood Coast, where I had recently moved. A small town with a bar and a harbor and a town square and an alternative newspaper. I had some gossip to throw in: my new writing students, many of them seniors, wrote of local history, family feuds, and the difficulty of making a living in the shrinking lumber and fishing economies. I decided to call this place Jefferson County, and make it the smallest county in California.

Now all I needed was an event. I needed some plot.

That’s when I got the news that a friend of mine, Steve Moss, an alternative newspaper publisher in San Luis Obispo, had died peacefully in his garden. The official word was that there had been no foul play, and I believed that, of course. But as happens to a lot of writers, the question thundered down from the sky: What if…?

Did I start outlining, start writing list, making timelines and character sketches? Hell no. I didn’t have time for that. It was time for me to have my fictitious muckraking newsman, Pete Thayer, killed behind the bar, which I named the Redwood Door.

The scream was so loud I bobbled the salad plate and dropped oily lettuce all over my lap.

My God, he’s been murdered!”

The room stopped chattering. Suddenly you could hear the basketball game on the television competing with “Shrimp Boats” on the jukebox. Gloria picked up a couple of remote controls and silenced them both. The Redwood Door was filled with a very loud hush. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the backs of people’s heads. Everyone was staring, watching the woman at the back of the tavern. Waiting.

River Webster appeared frightened, furious, wild and very sober. She opened her trembling mouth and shouted, “Gloria, call nine-one-one. Now!”

Then she turned and disappeared into the dark corridor that led to the back door of the tavern.

The chatter returned to the room, sounding like a garbage disposal going full blast. I put my hand on Carol’s arm, to ask her: Was that for real? Who was murdered? And most of all…

Carol turned her face to me and answered with a nod: You’d better get on back there.

I nodded and got down off my stool.

I shoved open the back door and walked out into the mist. The tiny three-car parking lot and the alley behind it were lit by a dim yellow floodlight. River rushed into my arms and hugged me around the neck, sobbing and snuffling. I held her gently, stroked her hair, hummed to calm her down, and finally she let me breathe. She backed away enough for me to see her anguished face hiccupping and gasping in the mist, then pointed at the body slumped against the brick back wall of the Redwood Door.

Pete Thayer sat on the wet asphalt, his back against the bricks, his head and shoulders propped up by the side of a Dumpster. The expression frozen on his face was one of shock and disbelief. His throat was gashed wide open, with the bloody handle of a large kitchen knife still protruding from the wound. His sequoia-green sweater was soaked with black blood.…

Why was Pete killed? Who killed him? I had no idea. I had to write to find out. You want to know the answers? You’ll have to read and find out.

This is how Behind the Redwood Door came to be. It became a big novel bursting with plot that seemed to write itself. I don’t even know if I have a right to feel proud of this self-generating novel, but I do. I’m proud enough to pull on my forelock, shuffle my toe in the dust, grin, and say, “Take it from Guy Mallon, you’re going to love this book!”

Advice for other writers? Enjoy the writing process itself. The writing career is never more fun than the sheer act of writing. That’s where the fun is. It’s there your words take wing. And if some creative writing teacher tries to bully you into outlining your work before you write it, feel free to give him or her a polite but condescending shrug.

Great post, John, and as a lifetime free-styler, I’m delighted to welcome you into our ranks.  For those of you who’d like to read the blog I wrote for today, it’s being graciously hosted by Pot Thief savant Mike Orenduff at I don’t remember what I wrote, but it’s probably not as good as John’s.

16 Responses to “Blog Tour, Day #4 — John M. Daniel”

  1. Caroline Clemmons Says:

    This is great writing! I can’t wait to read the entire book. Earl Staggs said you’re a writer to read, and now I believe him.

  2. john m. daniel Says:

    Thanks so much for letting me spout off on one of my favorite subjects. It’s something I’m asked a lot, as I’m sure you are too. Almost as common as the question all songwriters have to deal with: which comes first, the music or the lyrics? And of course the answer should always be: depends.

  3. Marilyn Meredith Says:

    This was fantastic, John. I usually begin know pretty much where I’m going. I write some notes, no outline, but as are start moving along the plot and characters have a life of their own.


  4. john m. daniel Says:

    Caroline, thanks so much! You must know how much this pleases me.

  5. Beth Anderson Says:

    Hoo boy, this is a real example of wonderful writing! And I agree with what John says, which is essentialy, do what feels right to you re plotting. I’ve done full plots ahead of time but I don’t do that anymore. I’ll write a few chapters, then start plotting the next few BUT I always know who the killer is and how I’m going to take him down before I start the book. I’m buying The Redwood Door for sure now!

  6. Earl Staggs Says:

    John, I usually know where I want a story to go, but not how to get there. I start writing and, sooner or later, the characters lead the way. I suppose that makes me a free-wheeling “pantser.” So far, it’s worked, so I don’t plan on changing. Bu the way, you owe me for bringing Caroline into your fan base.

  7. W.S. Gager Says:

    Great post John and I love the writing sample. As new writers or writers turned novelists they have to start with the structure but as they get more confident, the muse over takes them.My Mitch Malone muse is much like Guy’s and I’m just along to type their words.
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  8. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, John, great blog! In the end, it is, of course, a somewhat silly argument akin to pin-heads and dancing angels. All roads lead to Rome, and that’s probably where you’ll end up if you start out with a map and a carefully planned itinerary. But if you just start wandering around, after a few double-backs and dead-ends, you may end up in Paris or Prague or some other very interesting place you’d never thought or heard of. (Is that a dangling participle? Oh, who cares…)

  9. William Doonan Says:

    Great points, John. I tell my students always to outline, and then to feel free to alter the outline at will. If you were building a house, you wouldn’t just start hammering wood, you’d start by making a blueprint. If you decide halfway through that you want turrets and a bell tower, then you change the blueprint. Otherwise, you never know where the bell tower might turn up.

    William Doonan

  10. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Great post, John! I’ve got to read your book. As for outlining, I do so with my nonfiction books but it doesn’t work for me with fiction. I sit down each morning at the compouter with only a vague idea of what’s going to happen and type as fast as I can to keep up with my characters’ dialogue. So far it’s worked for me.

  11. john m. daniel Says:

    Wow. Thanks to each and every one of you who have commented. I am always interested to hear what roads writers take to get to Rome, Everett. And if we end up in Paris by mistake, well…we’ll always have Paris. Anyway, I need to say how fine it feels to be connected this way to so many fine writers.

  12. Mike Orenduff Says:

    Great post, John. Like you, I have written from an outline and from a blank page. I don’t know which one I like best. But obviously, I’m not that skilled at outlining, because I have to do just as many revisions on the manuscript written from an outline as on the one written by the seat of the pants. You are right – no part of the entire writing career is as much fun as the actual writing.

  13. Alice Duncan Says:

    What a fascinating post. I generally write from a synopsis, but sometimes I wing it. Sometimes books just seem to write themselves, and other times the words kind of creep out like frozen, sticky wormlike things that I have to wrestle into place.

  14. Anne K. Albert Says:

    Great advice, John. What works for one writer may not work for another. And what works to write one book may not work for the next.

    Loved the excerpt. Now, I have to read the rest of Behind The Redwood Door!

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    John, it’s been great to have you visit and also to read your terrific except. I bought the book this morning from Amazon and will open it the day it arrives.

    Hope you’ve enjoyed your stay here. Everyone else certainly seems to have had a wonderful time.

  16. john m. daniel Says:

    Tim, thanks so much for having me. This has been great fun, and I so much appreciate all the comments that have been left here in my lap! Thanks everyone. Tim, thanks so much for ordering BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR. Hope you enjoy it.

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