Ditch the tour bus, but bring your map!
guest post by Alaya Johnson
I love to travel, but I loathe tour groups. Half-hour breaks for boxed lunches is what you do for the annual office retreat, not your first visit to the Louvre. When I travel, I eat street food—crepes in Paris, huaraches in Mexico City, pizza in Naples. I wander around and take public transportation, and when I stagger into that gelato shop with the precise two euros in my pocket that will get me a scoop of cinnamon, it tastes that much more delicious. Sure, I might miss something in my wanderings, but I get more joy out of uncovering a new city on foot than a comprehensive bus tour.
I’ve taken this too far, however. I remember arguing in broken French with the receptionist of a one-star hotel I found in the phonebook about the fact that they shouldn’t be charging me the rate for a “room with a toilet” when said toilet was not in possession of a seat. Hey, it’s still a toilet, she told me, maybe you want to change rooms?
You know, I said to myself, in possession of a new room with a leaky shower and cigarette-dusted curtains, this might have gone a lot better with a plan.
It’s taken me a while to realize, but writing works pretty much like traveling in that way. I’ve had to teach myself when to be flexible and adventurous and when to slow down and figure out where the hell I’m going. Writing a novel is a tricky thing for anyone—the every-scene-with-its-Excel-chart-entry and seat-of-my-goddamn-pants aficionados alike. For those of us who have to swing between those extremes, it sometimes feels like you need a map just to know when it’s okay to put it down.
This can be compounded by the fact that the modern publishing industry often requires writers to commit themselves to a direction early. You want to get paid? Hand me an outline, honey. So I write the outlines, but I always tell my editors that they should in no way expect it to resemble the final project. What would be the fun in that? I tell them, with a hopefully winning smile.
Protestations aside, it’s sometimes hard to let go of a path when you’ve set it down on paper. When I wrote Wicked City, I swore up and down I wouldn’t feel beholden to my outline, and yet I found myself, 50,000 words in, wondering why exactly I’d persisted in believing it was a good idea to (metaphorically) stay in the hotel that didn’t have toilet seats just because I’d already made the reservation.
The relief I felt when I finally gave in and scrapped that unwieldy and useless plotline was equaled only by my resolve to never let that happen to me again.
A first draft will never be a perfectly plotted book (at least, mine will never be). But next time I have to write an outline, I plan to ritually burn it before I start to write. At least that way I’ll remember that in writing, as in travel, “Uh, never mind, I’ll do something else,” is sometimes your best option.
And if that means I find myself at loose ends, I can always comfort myself with cinnamon gelato while I find my way again.
Thanks, Alaya! Wicked City , on sale this week, is Alaya Johnson’s second novel set in an alternate 1920s New York City, where vampires and demons haunt the Lower East Side. You can read an excerpt from the novel on her website.