MAKING STORY: Jeffrey Siger

June 5th, 2012

“This is international police procedural writing at its best.” —Booklist, starred review.

Jeffrey Siger’s police procedurals are models of the form, as Booklist makes clear above.

Yesterday, Jeff’s new one, Target: Tinos was released.  Jeff is also one of the contributors to the forthcoming ebook MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, and I thought I might offer you a preview of that book and plug Jeffrey’s most recent magnum opus at the same time.  So here’s my italicized introduction to Jeffrey’s piece, followed by his thoughts on plotting.  To see what a good book this approach produces, read Target: Tinos.

Jeffrey Siger lives on the paradisaical Aegean island of Mykonos. You might ask, “Why?” and I’ll volunteer an answer: Because he can. He’s one of the lucky ones who found his heaven on earth and had the guts to move to it. And write about it. Siger’s alliteratively-titled books (the most recent is Target:Tinos) demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Greece (both modern-day and ancient) and a natural writer’s grasp of form, character, and story. His hero, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, is an honest cop in a world of corruption and accommodation. Great stuff.

And as a plotter, Jeff is largely spontaneous, although as you’ll see, he does make a list of bullet points—plot elements and other ideas—that lead him into the actual writing.

Plotting from Epiphanies

When I begin to write a book I always have a theme, but never a plot.

My themes arise from an epiphany-like moment of inspiration—the funeral of a close friend in a cramped Greek island church (Murder in Mykonos), the mention in a historical film of the ancient Athenian practice for ridding its city of unwanted leaders (Assassins of Athens), coffee shop talk among Greek friends of a financial scandal rocking an isolated 1500 year-old monastic community of twenty fairy-tale like monasteries (Prey on Patmos), or a casual remark about a jeweler’s role in maintaining caches of hidden treasure amassed from the offerings of grateful pilgrims to an island known as the Lourdes of Greece (Target: Tinos).

Since I never know when to expect such a moment, I always carry a tiny notebook in my back pocket and a pen up front. I scribble down ideas, random thoughts, rarely anything more than a possible general direction to take the story. It’s nothing remotely resembling an outline, nor as I’ve learned, close to how the book ultimately turns out.

All I have is this ethereal inspiration and, since I write a continuing series, an accomplished crew of primary characters chomping at the bit for me to give them something solid to work with.

So how do I come up with a plot? Damned if I know.

What I do know is that once inspiration strikes I immerse myself in researching the places, events, and entities I intend to fictionalize. I’m a big believer in predicating your story on accurate societal facts if you want to make the reader’s jump to the unimaginable seem not that far.

And the more research I do the more “ideas” I scribble in that notebook. Then one day I read through my collected notes, come up with a thirty bullet-point-or-so “ghost”—not skeleton—of a plot, and begin to type.

I have no more specific idea of where I’m headed than does a fellow who one day decides to “Go West, young man.” And though each day I may start out thinking I know where my writing is going, by the end of that session it generally bears no more resemblance to where I began than does a flower to its seed.

For some that may be an impossible way to write, but I can’t think of any other way. Yes, there are points to cover, but how you tie them together is up to your imagination. There is no one right path to take. What drives you forward are instinct, glimpses of the Promised Land, and a Zen-like tenacity for overcoming inevitable obstacles. Some days it’s an easy stroll across wide-open plains in soft summer breezes, others are a bare-knuckle struggle up a cliff face in an ice storm. But if you keep heading west, you’ll find fresh, exciting characters along the way and plot shifts jumping out of trees. And every once in a while your characters might even trust you enough to let you write a bit of the story yourself.

But as with all good things there comes a time for the story to end, and the closer you come to concluding your novel the more control you must assert in plotting a course to the finish. A wandering plot is not a thing of beauty.

My practice is to make each chapter as perfect as I can before going on to the next. That means I’ve done a lot of rewriting along the way, and doing that forces me to envision more precisely where things are likely headed. I still often don’t know what the conclusion will be until I’ve written it, but I can sense when there’s one lurking up ahead just around the bend. The reader may not realize it, but I do. It’s a moment determined by the pace of the story, not the plot.

No plot should stay beyond its time and if for some reason I think there remains something important to say that would advance the story, I go back into the book and find a place to say it there. Pace rules, at least in my book(s).

So, in a nutshell here is my ten-point approach to plotting:

1. When the “big idea” strikes you, immediately stop whatever you’re doing and write down everything that comes to mind, including where you see it taking you. Those first thoughts may later give you a plot you don’t yet see.

2. Imagine where you want the story to take place and immerse yourself in all you can about its past and present, especially quirky things. Take notes of every off the wall idea that comes to mind.

3. Lock yourself alone in a room (key in your possession) with your notes, read through them thoughtfully, shut your eyes, take a deep breath, open those baby blues (or browns in my case), and start to write your novel.

4. Your first few paragraphs can be important for even though they rarely remain as you wrote them in the finished version, they can offer insight into where your book is headed. The first three paragraphs of the accompanying excerpt from Target: Tinos did just that for me.

5. As you finish a chapter go back and rewrite it until you think it’s as good as you can make it for now. It keeps you from forgetting from whence you came as you plot on.

6. Do not be afraid to chase that random inspiration. You’ll know soon enough if it’s going to work and if it does, WOW. That feeling, my friends, is what the joy of writing is all about.

7. Keep taking notes as new ideas come to mind and review all your notes regularly, especially when you feel lost. Consider them your map of otherwise unchartered territory.

8. About a hundred pages into the book, try to hone in on where you think it’s headed and aim to get there within the confines of how long your novel is to be. If you err, do so on the side of it being too long. It’s always easier to cut.

9. Read your notes again—have I said that enough times?— to be sure you’ve covered all that you still think essential for the telling of your tale.

10. When the story is over, end it.

I apologize to those looking for a precise method to plotting. I obviously have none to offer. But for those freewheeling types who like to let it all hang out on a wild ride to an unpredictable finish, trusting only to their instincts, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.

This is great advice, from a first-rate writer.  Take a look at Target:Tinos, if what he says (or the island of Tinos) appeals to you.  Thanks, Jeff.

16 Responses to “MAKING STORY: Jeffrey Siger”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, Jeff, great piece! I haven’t read any of your books yet, but Murder in Mykonos is waiting for me on my Kindle, so one of these days. I’ve been doing some proofreading for Tim on Making Story, and I suspect it’s going to introduce me to a bunch of new writers that I’ve never read before. I have no hope of EVER catching up with my to-be-read stack. At least with ebooks, it doesn’t threaten to fall over and maim or kill me!

  2. Jeffrey Siger Says:

    Thanks, Everett, I always look forward to reading your comments. And don’t worry about getting to “Murder in Mykonos,” it will always be there. The key thing is that you bought it.:))

  3. Ed Stackler Says:

    I love your approach, Jeff. A cynic would call it looking for a high-concept to begin with (which is not a bad way to approach the most commercial of fiction endeavors in any case). For you, it’s societal, historical, or in some other way REAL. Something that intrigues or disturbs you. It digs under your skin until you realize that it’s your next story. Very well expressed and helpful!

  4. Usman Says:

    Thank you Jeff for being one of us outliers, from the outlaw land of pansters.
    But I am growing old due to no plotting. And on my current WIP, for the first time I am attempting hard at an outline. In general it means fleshing out notes, like you do. It’s helping me see the frame of the novel better. Really helpful post.

  5. Jeffrey Siger Says:

    Coming from one of the very best “book doctors” in the business, Ed, that’s very high praise indeed! Thank you, my friend.

  6. Theresa de Valence Says:

    Jeff, this post was beautifully written. You’ve convinced me to start another of your stories!

    P.S. Note you say that you’re adding an “accompanying excerpt” of Target:Tinos but I can’t find it.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sorry, Theresa — I should have deleted that. The format of the book is simple: 21 writers on how they plot. Each section begins with a critic’s quote about the writer, then an intro by me (since I’m editing the book) like the one that introduces Jeffrey in this post, then the plotting piece (and boy, are they different) and then an excerpt from a book, to give the reader a taste of what kind of story this writer’s approach creates. The book (ebook only) should be out in a month or so.

  8. Theresa de Valence Says:

    Sounds delicious, Tim!

  9. Bonnie Says:

    Uh-oh, Tim! Does that mean more cover art is coming my way? 😉

    Jeffrey, I *have* read Murder in Mykonos and enjoyed it. Looking forward to catching up with the rest of your books. I enjoy your posts on Murder is Everywhere, too.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Not just yet, Bonnie — when it does, it’ll be in the SPECIAL PROJECTS section and also on the home page. But there’s a lot of potential stuff happening, so we’ll need to work this through one step at a time.

  11. Jeffrey Siger Says:

    Thanks, Theresa and Bonnie. One really must step up to the plate when you’re on a Hallinan Team.:)

    And thanks, Usman, for emphasizing the most important point about plotting: there is no hard and fast rule. It’s whatever works for you at any given time. Run wildly with the bulls (as opposed to the lemmings) or sit quietly in a corner constructing plot with the same intricate (and bloody) detail as did Madame Defarge with her knitting… Or ride the bulls as you knit. Whatever works, I say.

  12. Usman Says:

    ‘Ride the bulls as you knit’; really enjoyed that line, and how you explained it.

  13. Jeffrey Siger Says:

    Feel free to use it as your own, Usman:)

  14. Mike Bove Says:

    Thank you so much, Jeffery, for making my own seemingly directionless method seem even more so. You have described a similar beginning, but have remodeled and expanded it into a beautiful structure. I shall pin your ‘ten point approach’ next to Vonnegut’s ‘8-tips on writing’ that hangs above my desk.

  15. EverettK Says:

    Jeff: I’m about 5 chapters or so into Murder on Mykonos, and am enjoying it immensely!

  16. Jeffrey Siger Says:

    WOW, Mike, you sure do know how to flatter a guy! I’d be honored just to be in the same house with Vonnegut, let alone next to The Master. Thank you very much.

    Everett, I’ve always liked your style, especially when you use such phrases as “enjoying it immensely!” 🙂 Thanks.

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