Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.



24 thoughts on “Getting to Z Street

  1. Catholic school? Ha! I was L.A. public all the way, back when that district actually emphasized education.

    Plus, I like the map analogy. In fact, I wrote about driving between “signpost scenes” a bit ago. I’m happy to hear about your own journey, Joe…you certainly won’t get stuck at the Dumpsters again!

    So, as Randy Newman might put it: Roll down the window, put down the top, crank up the Beach Boys, baby, don’t let the writing stop!

    • First! So Jim…you were in high school…let me guess…before 1977? Who’da thunk it?

      Funny that you mention the Beach Boys, as I’ve been listening to the unimaginatively titled “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” for the last two weeks. Non-stop. I don’t know why.

  2. I use a huge whiteboard and create a sketchy map which allows me to change my course when I find a better hotel rate or gas. The town the story begins in (title) tops my map with squiggly lines leading to the cities I plan to visit. Because I have wide open white countryside I use P. J. Parrish’s post it notes idea and fill in the undeveloped areas with thoughts, characters, subplots, and other things I am afraid I’ll forget. This allows me the freedom to change my course by moving the post it’s around.

    C J

  3. I’m finishing up book number 9, that for some reason has presented more mental blocks for me the entire time I was working on it. I thought it was because I hadn’t visited the location in 20 years that I set the book in so I lacked that source of inspiration. I would get stuck at the dumpster and just when the smell was overwhelming, I would find a way around it. For book 10, I’m trying your method. I’m a true blue Pantser and the last time I wrote an outline, the story didn’t look at all like what I had outlined.

    • Alec, if you have completed nine books and are preparing for Number 10, you’re obviously do something right! Thanks!

  4. Good morning, Joe

    My method is constantly evolving, but I’m mostly an outliner. I like to plan out the overall journey in my head, set down the “sign posts,” then use a very flexible outline that gets moved as I start writing the scenes.

    And there’s nothing like Scrivener to make it easy to jump ahead, rewrite scenes, and move them around.

    Good luck with your book, Joe. I’m eager to read it.

    • Good morning, Steve!

      I forgot about Scrivener. Thanks for the reminder. David Hewson was the first major proponent of that program that I recall.

      Thanks for the good wishes and encouragement, Steve. I’ll definitely give you a first look. Right after mine!

  5. Joe,

    Love your stories as always. Z Street must be the place in a child’s mind that’s equivalent to her imaginary friends whom no one else can see, but are completely real to her. Too bad humans lose that quality…or if we don’t, we grow up to be writers 🙂

    My outlining is more like starting a road trip in San Diego and heading for New York. There are a few stretches of interstate, but mostly twisting country roads and a million different choices of routes. Along the way, Jim’s signposts guide me to certain towns that *must* be visited (plot points). As long as I keep generally heading north and east, I’ll eventually get to New York.

    My early novels used to have a starting place, but no end in mind until I fumbled into one, which was usually disappointing. Now I focus on the goal/destination, and the subconscious/inner compass get me there. That satisfies the need to outline w/o the constrictions of being tied to one.

    Thanks, Joe, for a positive start to Saturday morning.

    • Debbie, thank you for your kind words. I think you’re spot on about a child’s mind. Of course, by the time they’s young adults, they’re making up stories of another sort! I like your goal/destination method as well, certainly it’s something I should add to my own toolkit. Thanks for stopping by and contributing.

  6. Joe, one of the earliest writing books I read was Jim Bell’s one on Plot and Structure, and (simple person that I am) I adopted his LOCK system and still use it. I start out with a hook, decide on the Lead(s), craft an Opponent, set up the Conflict, and come up with a Knockout ending. Along that trail, I may chase a rabbit or two, but it usually works. Then again, that’s just my method.
    Thanks for the trip to Z Street. I may have to try laying out a map for my next book, although I’ll probably take a detour or two along the way.

    • Richard, you’re welcome. And I must note…”simple” is not the word that I would reach for, reflexively or after due deliberation, to describe you. Not at all. And detours on the way to Z Street are not only permitted but also encouraged!

        • Mike, it’s possible. Thanks for the suggestion. We’ll probably never know…

  7. I don’t outline. When I first started writing, I did. But I always found that, by the time I reached the end, I no longer wanted to write that story. Because I knew what was going to happen.

    I don’t call myself a ‘pantser’. I call myself a discovery writer. I write to discover the story.

    I think others have called what I do ‘using signposts’. I usually know what’s going to happen at the end. I might even write the ending first, though that may change as the rest of the story develops. Since I know what’s basically happening, I can figure out how to get to the end. Like: Characters need to get to the place this will occur, in some interesting manner. They will need to meet this character at some point earlier, and this character later. Maybe this character will start out looking like a good guy, then turn out to be evil, while the other will look consistently nasty until the end, where the character will show that they’re nasty, but not evil.

    Then I drive towards those signposts, though I may take several detours along the way, and may miss one of them in exchange for a better path…

    Following your analogy of ‘getting to Z Street’ – my path to writing a novel is like following a country road, intending to get to a small town forty miles away, but taking my time, seeking out neat things to see, to fill out my day, and just plain enjoying the trip and seeing new things all over the place. Of course, in Saskatchewan (where I live) most country roads are on a grid, so you can turn down one, but have a relatively sure idea where you’ll be able to turn back if you want to. They’re also mostly gravel roads, so you don’t want to go too fast down them, anyway, or you’ll pit your windshield and won’t be able to see where you’re going – or enjoy the sights.

    As for Annalisa – poor girl. I’m afraid she’s got a writer’s imagination. That can be terrible to live with as she gets older… but it can also be exciting.

  8. Wow, BJ. Thanks for that. I felt a connection with a kindred soul when you said that you no longer wanted to write a story once you knew what was going to happen. I had that problem for years. And years. I finally got over it by telling myself that I could enjoy the journey. In my work in eternal progress I wrote the ending first, and then decided how it would start…the equivalent of deciding what day I would leave, what method of travel I would use, where I would stay overnight (or just drive straight through).

    As for Annalisa…she has definitely channeled her imagination constructively. But that’s a tale for another time.

  9. I thought Z Street would be Easy Street, but your daughter is much more imaginative. I do a chapter by chapter outline, with scenes, Joe. When I start writing, I may deviate from the chapters in the middle, but I know the opening, the ending, and the killer.

    • Her imagination has grown exponentially as she has aged, Elaine. I like the chapter by chapter outline, which as I recall is what Jeffery Deaver does as well. I’m not sure if I can get there that way, but that opening/ending/killer thing seems to be working. Hope it continues to work for you too. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. I loosley outline, using a template I created for Scrivener. Since I like to “see” my story when I click on the corkboard, I only have 4 folders–Act 1, 2a, 2b, 3. Then I’ll have a few text files in each folder with what I need for each act. Like, in Act 1, I have the setup–characters, setting, and what will propel the story into Act 2a. Act 2b starts with the middle point and whatever action will turn the story in a different direction. The last text file in 2b propels the story into Act 3 and the knockout ending. I don’t always know who the killer is, though.

    Loved your story about your daughter and Z Street. I definitely end up at the dumpster sometimes and have to work around it. And this last book – #10 was the hardest one I’ve written. And like Alec, I have no idea why.

    • Patricia, my fedora is doffed to anyone who can write ten books. Thanks for sharing your method. If your last one was the hardest that may also indicate that it’s your best to date, since you obviously aren’t phoning it in, the way some authors do when they reach that point. Thanks for coming by.

  11. Joe – enjoyed your post today. Me thinks, though, that you’re selling yourself short. I say that because you’re an experienced professional with success under your belt, which means you absolutely know your way around a story. No matter how you get there. Process is personal, and it is important only in how it empowers your end-product. And, how happy one is with their choice in that regard.

    What’s different about new writers is when they put their ear to the ground and listen to what others are saying about process (like, “I don’t outline”) and believe that this is how it’s done. It is how it’s done… for that guy. Maybe not for the writer who hears this from someone else sharing their journey. We all have to find our path in this regard, I think you’d agree.

    That said, no matter how we write, the quality of the story and the suffering of the writer are both ultimately dependant upon a collision of two things: what the writer knows about craft (the core principles of storytelling; otherwise, we’re swimming in the dark; this is why some of us teach this stuff), either as a learned skillset or in their gut, and the degree to which they ulimately “discover” their best core story from the best version of their premise. I believe that a draft written without the ending in mind is a draft destined for a rewrite (foreshadowing, anyone?), which is absolutely part of the process for most of us (not unique to pansters or planners)… even when we know the ending. If it takes a bunch of drafts or a cork board full of post-it notes doesn’t matter, as long as we get to that finish line in a way that delivers a story that works, and we can look back and say it was a good ride getting there.

    • Larry, thanks so much 1) for your kind comments (you remain easy to please) and 2) your words of wisdom which I think I’ll cut and paste and keep as a screensaver for advice and inspiration. You’re the best!

  12. Re: your daughter’s owl friend. Many psychologists suggest that imaginary companions are much like the fictional characters created by authors. So looks like your daughter takes after you, Joe–another writer in the family clan! 🙂

  13. Thank you, Kathryn…the saying around our house is that Annalisa got her creativity from me and her technical proficiency from her mother. Just so.

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