Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When A Plan Goes Awry by Sandra Carey Cody

Did you know that the chocolate chip cookie was invented by accident? In 1930, at the Toll House Inn in Wakefield, Mass., Ruth Graves Wakefield substituted broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate for regular baker's chocolate in a cookie recipe. She thought the chips would melt into the batter. We all know how that turned out. I wonder if Ms. Wakefield was disappointed that things didn't go according to plan. When she pulled her cookie sheet from the oven and saw solid brown chunks sticking up like rocks in her golden cookies, was she upset? Did she think she had failed?  I like to imagine her looking at the cookies, shaking her head, and thinking something like, Oh, well, a lesson learned.  Did she take that first taste reluctantly? If so…what a pleasant surprise!. Whatever her reaction, there's a pretty good chance she didn't realize that she had just created an American classic.

What does this have to do with writing? If you're a baker, probably nothing, but, if you're a writer, everything has to do with writing.

My plots rarely turn out exactly as I plan. Sometimes I introduce a character, thinking I know exactly how he or she fits in the overall plan, only to have the character take over and re-write their part, giving themselves a more important role in the story. In my most recent work, LOVE AND NOT DESTROY, the victim demanded to tell his own story. I thought the manuscript was finished and was starting the editing process when (in the very first chapter!) this dead man seemed to guide my fingers to certain keys, spelling out words, stringing themselves into sentences and paragraphs. Turns out he needed to explain how he came to commit the act that started the sequence of events that form the backbone of the plot. I couldn't have been more surprised. Come to think of it, he was surprised himself by the turning of events. He may have guided my fingers to explain himself, but what he needed to explain was a plan that didn't work out. Long story short, I let him have his way and there are fourteen short scenes told from the victim's point of view. (I guess it's a small enough favor to grant someone you've just stabbed through the heart and left in the corner of a shed.)

I knew all along that the information in these scenes was necessary, but I had planned to reveal it in a different way. However, once I stopped fighting with my character and let him tell his own story, he became much more vivid to me and his death more poignant. (I can only hope readers feel the same.)

Characters with minds of their own are just one example of the surprising twists that occur during the writing of a novel. A book left open on a table can take a scene and, ultimately, an entire plot, in an unexpected direction. A line of throwaway dialogue can suggest a secret that leads to a subplot.

As a writer, I love it when these little surprises pop up. I think readers like surprises too. I know I do. However, as much fun as surprises are, once they have occurred, they should seem inevitable. John Irving is a writer who does this well. Dickens is another, maybe the best ever. And Jane Austen. I doubt any reader can anticipate all the twists and turns in her stories. Did you anticipate that Lydia would elope with Wickham? Once it happened, didn't it seem inevitable?

So, if you're a writer, and your story won't follow your plan, maybe you need to need to let the elements blend (or not) according to their own needs. Who knows? Maybe you'll create an American classic.

The link to LOVE AND NOT DESTROY is  http://amzn.to/wxIV81


  1. I forgot something important - to thank Wendy for hosting me. so ... THANKS, WENDY!

  2. Wonderful post, Sandy, and oh-so true! Right now I'm struggling with characters in my WIP who are demanding a different ending and I'm stymied. But who knows? As you said, maybe this will result in a work much better than my original plan!

  3. Thanks! Great description of how a writer's mind works--oftgen a frigthening process! The books in which I allow the characters to lead are always my best.

  4. Thanks, Marielena and Jane, for sharing your experiences. Jane, when I have the sense to let my characters lead the way, my books turn out better too. Marielena, maybe you should have a choc. chip cookie and a cup of tea and give in to your recalcitrant characters - or maybe not. Only you can decide.

  5. Good blog, Sandy. When I'm having trouble with some aspect of a book, I always know something is wrong with it -- either it doesn't belong in the book at all, or it should be handled in a completely different way. I don't try to fight my way through it. Not quite the same thing as letting characters take over... or is it? :-)

  6. I don't know if it's the same or not. There's a thin line between not forcing a story and being so wishy-washy that the story meanders all over the place.

  7. I'm a true pantser and I'm often surprised where my stories take me. For my Nobody series for Avalon, I had to provide blurbs for all three stories, even though only one was written. I wrote three quick blurbs and fired them off to the editor. A year later, after all three stories were completed, I opened up those blurbs. Number one stuck to the story, number two "sort of" followed the basic plot, but number three didn't even have the same character names.

  8. I envy you, Gina. I have to have at least an idea where I'm going before I can start. I don't usually end up exactly where I thought I would, but I have something to aim toward.