It’s a real pleasure to welcome Yusuf Toropov to the CTG blog. Yusuf is an American Muslim writer, he’s authored and co-authored a number of non-fiction books and has had plays produced off-Broadway. His highly acclaimed debut novel – Jihadi: A Love Story – is published by Orenda Books and is out now.
Today, Yusuf’s kindly agreed to talk about his experience of writing a novel, and whether he’s a pantser or a plotter …
There are, Plot Whisperer author Martha Alderson tells us, two kinds of fiction writers: writers who navigate by the seat of their pants, making stuff up as they go along, often without any clear sense of where a scene might actually belong in the book’s sequence … and writers who delight in plotting out events, conflicts, and resolutions ahead of time before attempting to actually write a scene.
Martha’s right. If you’re a writer, you either want to know where the scene fits in your running order before you start to work on it, or you don’t. You’re one or the other, a Pantser or a Plotter. ‘Yeah but I’m both, yeah but I’m neither, yeah but yeah but yeah but.’ Ssh. It’s true. Now just keep reading. If you write fiction, there’s a breakthrough waiting for you here, the same one Martha made possible for me, and the only way for you to get it is to assume for a moment that you do lean one way or the other. And trust me. You do. This is just the reality of writing stories.
Alderson’s book, which you should read if you are writing a novel or even thinking about doing so, makes two important points about all this. First and foremost, you need to figure out which of the two groups you fall into.
I am a classic Pantser. I’m the guy who stumbles ahead without letting the fact that I haven’t set up much of a plot yet stop me. Even if there is a clear plot structure to a story I’ve been working on for a while, I tend to try to forget about it while I’m writing. I actually prefer the sensation of not having the least clue where a given scene is going. I love accidents, and I get some of my best stuff from noticing when something that I tried came out wrong – but interesting.
Case in point: the character Fatima Adara, from my novel Jihadi: A Love Story. Most people tell me she’s the most memorable thing about the book. Yet I stumbled across her. She was supposed to appear in one scene. I wrote about 50,000 words of the novel before I realized that she was a major character. (They weren’t all good words – I threw about half of them out.)
You read right: 50,000 words. Now, if you’re a Plotter, I suspect you just cannot imagine yourself investing the word counts that I did in a story that hadn’t yet identified all of its major characters. And you know what? You’re right. I probably shouldn’t have. At that point, I was traveling without a map. Which brings us to Alderson’s second big point, and the breakthrough she made possible for me and, maybe, for you.
It is this: Once you know which writing camp you fall into, Pantser or Plotter, you have to make a conscious effort to compensate for certain inherent weaknesses you bring to the table as a writer.
If you’re a Plotter, Alderson asks you to consider that your likely weaknesses as a writer include the following: Compelling emotion may be lacking from some of your scenes. Ring any bells? Plotters, this is for you. In addition to plotting, you need to push yourself outside your comfort zone. You need to go beyond outlining. You need to find a way to experience, on a personal level, what your protagonist is experiencing. You need to notice what that obstacle she’s encountering feels like, on a sensory level, not just on an analytical level. You need to be there personally and get hurt, fall in love, be terrified, whatever. You need to experience whatever is happening first-hand if you really want to write about it. (This is something that Pantsers usually have no problem with, by the way.) You’ve got to put yourself into the character’s situation, live the scene, and notice what the emotion feels like before you start writing. Otherwise, you may ‘finish’ your book, but you may find that it is filled with scenes that don’t actually engage the reader on a gut level. Ouch.
If you’re a Pantser (like me) your likely weakness looks like this: You may never finish the damn book, because you’re ‘writing’ without a structure – travelling without a map. Pantsers, this is for you (and me): You just don’t like establishing specific plot points and themes ahead of time. You say it ‘handcuffs’ you. If you do ‘finish’ the book, though, you may find that Act Three has little or nothing to do with Acts One and Two. Again: Ouch. This was my big weakness as a writer, and overcoming it was my breakthrough. I really, really did not want to bother with setting up a Plot Planner (Alderson’s primary writing tool) when I began reading her book, but by the time I was done with it, I knew I had to go outside my comfort zone. So I identified the five essential Alderson turning points for my story, and I put them up on the wall, using her Plot Planner tool. On that wall, I started laying out a clear sequence of scenes, in outline. (A first for me.) Doing all this was not my first instinct. It wasn’t how I was used to writing. But it needed to happen.
As a result of going out of my comfort zone, I figured out, not only that Fatima was independent, intelligent, and a devout Muslim, but also what the big decision ended up making in Act Three of my novel was, and how it needed to be set up in Act One. Also how she connected to the novel’s themes. Also what, specifically, she heard in the very first scene she was in that affected my protagonist in Act Two. All that stuff I didn’t know before I completed my Plot Planner, and I have Martha to thank for it.
You can buy Martha Alderson’s indispensable book The Plot Whisperer here. You can buy Jihadi: A Love Story, on which I might still be working if it hadn’t been for Martha’s work, here.
A huge thank you to Yusuf for talking with us today about his writing process and how he wrote his debut novel – Jihadi: A Love Story. As a fellow pantser, I’m heading over to check out The Plot Whisperer right now!
I also highly recommend you check out Jihadi: A Love Story. Here’s the blurb: “A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment, but who is the real terrorist. Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions. Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind.”
The Jihadi: A Love Story Blog Tour is running now. Be sure to pop over to all the wonderful stops …