Life and Writing, According to Plan

Normally, I write at my kitchen table. Not today, though. I am currently sitting in a smoking minivan outside an O’Reilly Auto Parts in Finlayson, Minnesota. We made an unscheduled stop after a bad smell and the aforementioned smoke. According to the menfolk, the van is leaking radiator fluid. Instead of offering my opinion about the car, I’m thinking about writing. Writing … road trip gone wrong … basically the same thing, right?  Anyone who’s written a book knows that the plot often starts leaking radiator fluid about one hundred pages in.

While there is always a tension between planning ahead and unplanned car trouble, some types of books probably require a firmer hand on the wheel. For example, a work of grand deception. When I say grand deception, I’m thinking of one of those books that leaves you gobsmacked at the end because the reality the author immersed you in turns out to be false. You aren’t just surprised about the killer, but the entire world the author created. When this works, the resolution is shocking. There is probably a German word to describe this experience. In the movie world, think The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. Gone Girl is a the most recent grand deception that rocked the literary world. God, I’m sick of talking about Gone Girl, but there it is again. It was a pretty good deception. The Westing Game also comes to mind, but it’s been so long since I’ve read it, I might be misremembering. I need to reread that one.

Car update: So the men have emerged from O’Reilly with a bottle of Stop Leak liquid aluminum, but decided not to use it after reading the directions. It would take too long, I guess. All seven of us are now on the road again—did I mention four kids are in the car? Also, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. So many things could go wrong. We’re definitely in Act II, the part where the chaos accelerates.

Unlike my real life, an author hoping to pull off a grand deception has to be in control of things. To create a false reality, while hiding the true reality in plain sight, everything has to be working in concert: plot, narration, character development, theme, and clever clues. If the deception isn’t built into the book on every level, it won’t work.

I don’t know if a detailed outline is required, but I imagine an author has to have a strong vision at the outset. Without an overarching vision, I imagine the thing would turn into a herky jerky mess, broken down on the side of I-35 southbound. Incidentally, I’m not there yet, at least literally. We are forty-five minutes from our final destination, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the van hasn’t produced any more smoke. As for my current writing project, I’m only seventy-five pages in. Plenty of time to break down still.

Can you think of any novels of the type I’m describing? Maybe there is a name for this sub-genre… Grand deception sounds a little stilted. The cool kids probably call it something else. If there’s a name, enlighten me.


13 thoughts on “Life and Writing, According to Plan”

  1. Car trouble. What an apt metaphor. I had my critique group this Sunday and one of my partners said, “Is this the killer?” I honestly do not know yet. I had an outline. That outline is now like your minivan – smoking along the side of the road. Except I’m not sure there’s anything that’s going to fix it, so I might as well just grab the thing by the horns and move on. I do have a vision. It has more to do with the theme and characters than the plot, but we’ll see if I can get there. (My critique partners tell me what I’m trying to do is kind of difficult – keep two characters with a lot of sexual/romantic tension apart and at odds, but they have faith in me).

    I’m with Keenan. I don’t know there’s a name for that sub-genre but Damn Agatha nailed it. Add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to that list.

    And I really hope you made it to your destination without further car woes – and that you will make it back!


  2. Oh Sam! Hope that you made it to your destination. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade- way to go. My metaphor is a leaky boat, but the end result is the same, just keep bailing. Agree about Christie.


  3. Mary–I think that is a theme and character outline is a better idea than plot sometimes. At least your characters are true to themselves that way!

    I haven’t read Christie in way too long! I’ll pull her out again. Adding The Murder of Roger Akroyd to my TBR too. 🙂


  4. I think Grand Deception is a great name for the subgenre! Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley comes to mind. Sorry about your smoking van! No fun now, but it will become great fodder for stories.


  5. Wonderful post, Sam! I love the road trip metaphor, although I really hope you make it to your destination safe and sound! Grand Deception is a great name. I haven’t heard this subgenre called anything else either, although I wonder if advertising a book as Grand Deception would take away the element of surprise?? Other books that come to mind are Girl on the Train, Code Name Verity, and We Were Liars, which coincidentally all feature unreliable narrators. Hmmm… 🙂


  6. Unreliable narrators–I think that’s key, Kate. Adding even more to my reading list. Love all these suggestions. Watch–my next post will be a reading list of all the suggestions here!


  7. Great metaphor, and pondering about, yes, unreliable narrators. The trouble with labeling our books with either that or grand deception, though, is that then reader will know from the beginning what’s going on, and we don’t want that. So, I guess there’s no real sub-genre for this. I think most all are myteries. The best one I’ve read lately is “The Memory Box” by Eva Lesko Natiello. But now I’ve told you it has an unreliable narrator, it might not be as enjoyable to read!


  8. “Grand Deception” is the perfect subgenre. Your post made me scurry to see where I was in this new draft of mine. Page 121. I’m feeling like an overachiever to have made it this far before feeling like writing a book is simply impossible and WHAT WAS I THINKING?? Heading to the store to find some radiator fixing fluid for my psyche … stuff seems to be leaking out.


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