The Story Behind ROTTWEILER – Part 2

To commemorate my first Free Promotion this weekend, I thought I would share some of the history behind Rottweiler. Herein, I’ll discuss the story and its origins, the process of writing the first draft, and the far more difficult process of editing the finished novel and preparing it for publication. I will also discuss how I’ve actually applied the advice I posted on March 8 and March 12 and how these lessons were pivotal in the development of Rottweiler.

I highly recommend you read The Story Behind ROTTWEILER – Part 1 before reading further.

Yesterday I discussed the plotline of the novel and the key moments of inspiration behind it. Today I will focus on the issue of pre-planning and its impact on my “writing process”.

“Plotting” versus “Pantsing”

Like everything when it comes to creative writing, this is a matter of personal preference. Some people need the structure and the guidance afforded by a carefully crafted outline and fully developed character sketches and the like. They don’t feel comfortable traveling anywhere without a detailed map and maybe some written directions on top of it. Others need the freedom of the open road. They aren’t afraid to jump behind the wheel – or behind the keyboard for that matter – and simply go. They’ll get where they want to be eventually, right?

The question is just how many of the sights you want to see along the way.

On Pantsing – A Tangent

The first novel I ever finished writing was a pure flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants affair. It was called Squires and – barring some wickedly nostalgic itch in my pants and some hardcore editing and rewriting – it will NEVER see publication. You’ll understand why soon enough.

Squires was born – not surprisingly – during a long run. I was working as a residence hall director at a small college in Indiana and was doing a very poor job of it. I was fresh out of college, but I was still living on a college campus. So I lived like I was still a college student.

But I didn’t have classes.

It’s a great life if you can get it.

The problem was that I was taking far too little responsibility for my building, and I was working far too few office hours. As a result, I had A LOT of spare time on my hands. It’s not a phase of my life that I’m proud of, but – in retrospect – it was a necessary learning experience. I grew up in a hurry after I got fired.

But I digress.

I took a slow, meandering jog around the outskirts of town that day and, over the course of several miles, told myself a story. And I enjoyed it so much that I decided I was going to write it. If nothing else, I was desperate for something to keep me busy.

I didn’t get any of that day’s thoughts sketched out on paper, though. I had told the story to myself so many times during my run that I clearly remembered it – still do, in fact – and I didn’t want to feel beholden to my notes. I just wanted to write.

So I wrote.

The original concept was about a wayward teenage boy who, for the first time, gets some direction in his life from a chance encounter with his hero, a lineman for a fictional pro football franchise in Chicago. That encounter motivates him to try out for his high school football team, on which he becomes a starting lineman. But, nearing graduation and lost in a quagmire of self-doubt and null-direction, he tries to contact his hero….who goes to bat for him with his old college coach and helps him earn a scholarship….which – again, thanks to the hero’s intervention – leads to an opportunity as an undrafted free agent in Chicago….which eventually leads to one unlikely start on a Sunday afternoon and, for the first time in the main character’s life, a true sense of validation and accomplishment.

You’d be amazed what sounds good when you’re seven miles down the road, you’re under-fueled, and your body’s started to cannibalize itself.

Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately, depending on your perspective – Squires became none of those things. It started out trying to go down that road, but whenever I sat down to write I just got behind the proverbial wheel and went. And I got woefully lost along the way.

To make matters worse, while I was out flying by the seat of my pants, I had to change those pants several times. I wrote Squires over the course of twenty-six months. When I began, I was a freshly minted college grad working a grown-up job but trying desperately to still be a kid. Then I was unemployed and back home with my parents. Then I was working part-time at UPS and thinking about going into law enforcement. I went through three girlfriends during this span, the last of whom I eventually married. By the time I finished the novel I was done with graduate school and teaching part time at the high school where I still work. I had come full circle and was now living like a kid in my old bedroom but trying desperately to finish becoming a grown-up at my new grown-up job.

And, in the midst of all of that, I also started coaching. My understanding of both football and football players changed dramatically because of it.

The end result was a book that began as one thing, morphed into something far different, got set aside while I was taking classes and substitute teaching, then ultimately became something utterly unrecognizable from what it was originally supposed to be. It had enough plot holes and incongruities and continuity errors to keep Fanboys busy for generations. It was essentially a young-adult story written in a far too mature voice and an equally over-inflated tone.

And it was as long as The Grapes of Wrath.

Like I said: it will NEVER see publication.

I have the rejection letters to prove it. You can actually hear literary agents laughing when you open them up.

On Plotting – Another (far shorter) Tangent

The novel I’m currently writing is a much different animal from both Squires and Rottweiler. It’s a young-adult piece (for real this time) with some strong literary and science fiction leanings. And it’s by far the most “plotted” thing I’ve ever written. The reason for that is because it’s the first of a planned four-book series. [I know, I know. Everybody’s doing a YA sci-fi/fantasy series these days. Sorry.] The challenge with series fiction, though, is that the details, the story, and the characters need to be consistent throughout the process. Pantsing just doesn’t get the job done.

My original inspiration for this book was my niece. The last time I saw her – sadly, almost three years ago now – she caught me working on Rottweiler. Unfortunately, she was ten at the time and Rottweiler is not at all family-friendly. So I promised her that I’d try to write something that she would enjoy. I’ve been working on it off-and-on (mostly off while I forced myself to finish Rottweiler and get it published) ever since. She’ll probably have outgrown it by the time I’m done, but I’m keeping at it anyway. I refuse to let her down.

Anyway, I’m currently the most heavily “outlined” and “mapped” and “plotted” that I’ve ever been before. Not that that says much. I’m not finding it constricting yet, but it’s also still a work in progress. And I am still allowing myself the freedom to redraw parts of the map as I go.

More on that in a minute.

Rottweiler – Striking a Balance

Although Squires was largely an unmitigated disaster, it was also the best education I’ve ever gotten in creative writing. And I can safely say this: If Squires doesn’t exist, neither does Rottweiler. Although I would never call myself a plotter, I learned from Squires the danger of doing everything off-the-cuff. I also learned a lot about the editing process (more on that tomorrow). More than anything else, I learned some of my biggest weaknesses as a writer.

As I described on March 8, however, none of those lessons meant anything until I actually sat down and applied them.

With Rottweiler, I was smart enough to at least scribble down the individual episodes – some loosely based on real experiences, most entirely fictional – that I wanted as the backbone of the story. I never did develop a full outline, though. When I write, I don’t want a step-by-step, turn-by-turn roadmap from Point A to Point B. I like the freedom of taking “the scenic route”, and really do not function well without it. When my course is pre-ordained, I find my creativity hopelessly stifled and, far worse, my enjoyment thoroughly diminished.

Is writing work? If you’re serious about it, yes. But it should be FUN work. And, as we all know, fun work really doesn’t feel like work at all.

From Rottweiler, I learned the value of plotting TO AN EXTENT. For me, that extent is being able to see Point B from Point A but still being able to fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to getting from one to the other. If I can’t see Point B on the horizon, then there’s no telling where I’m going to end up. But if there’s only one straight and narrow road connecting it back to Point A, then I really have no interest in making the trip.

The end result, as far as Rottweiler was concerned, was a rough plan that evolved over time and a story that I think was far more engaging and genuine because of it. I’m taking the same approach with my current project, although the points on the map are more numerous and much closer together. The comfort I take, though, is that the only paved roads I see are the ones I’ve left behind.

Tomorrow, I will conclude this series with a look at the work that went into completing my first draft of Rottweiler as well as the far more daunting tasks of editing and publishing.

Click here to read Part 3 of The Story Behind ROTTWEILER.


3 thoughts on “The Story Behind ROTTWEILER – Part 2

  1. “Pantsing”. I like it. My first book was “pantsed”, and you could tell. My second, less so, my third, thoroughly plotted. Which should have been better.
    But to my surprise I found that my own voice got lost in the level of detail that went into the planning. Everything had to be perfect. Not just plausible, or probably, but likely. Which meant certain events and traits and conversations had to go. And the excitement that had me thinking through that book in the first place was so diluted that – well, never mind.
    I’m now back on the first book, trying to apply a bit of plan to the pants that brought it into the world. Turns out that for me, maybe, you need a bit of both.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I know (now) that I absolutely need a little bit of both. I never want to feel bound by my own outlines and character sketches. But I definitely need to be able to give myself a swift kick in the pants whenever they start to take flight.

    Glad to hear you’re going back to your old work and trying to make it the best it can be. I hope the time is right and I wish you success.

  3. Pingback: The Story Behind ROTTWEILER – Part 3 | Christopher V. Alexander - Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author

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