*Thanks to Paul Coccia for sharing the piece with MG Book Village. ON THE LINE will be released on March 15th by Orca Book Publishers
I knew Eric Walter’s reputation as a legend and master of writing when he asked me to co-author a book with him. With his drive, altruism and over 100 books, he knows more than a thing or two. Especially where plot is concerned, one of his many strengths. Now I am a confirmed plantser: the halfway mark between a writer who plots and one who flies by the seat of their pants. I’ve taken at least a dozen online quizzes and it always turns out the same: split right down the middle plantser.
We began speaking and Eric had a strong sense of the story’s action and the main character. I was left open to my favourite part, helping populate the world we were creating. Knowing that Eric has an expertise, I wasn’t about to mess with a good thing.
Except I did. I blew the plot. On a plotter. And a master plotter at that.
Eric and I wrote from one main character’s point of view. We revised each other’s work. A lot. I took out or changed things on him and he did the same. There was no ego. There was no, I was right, how dare you? There was lots of good conversation. Eric always stopped to explain why things were jiving or weren’t. He made sure I was doing the same. He’s a legend that way too.
As we worked, Eric and I kept a document. Eric more diligently, to be fair. It kept track of where the story and characters had been, where they were going, page count, word counts, etc. It was the roadmap to the adventure. This came in handy especially as we wrote out of order. For example, I may have been working on chapters 3, 4, 8 and 9 while Eric handled 5, 6 and 7. Neither of us knew what the other was writing exactly. We had a general sense due to the document. But we didn’t actually see the words on the page until revising. Luckily, we can both be fast writers so within a week, we’d have all the chapters compiled and edit them to make sure they flowed and were consistent before we tackled the next set. It wasn’t conventional. I’m not sure either of us would recommend it as a good process. But it worked for us only because of the document that gave us a clear direction to move forward together cohesively.
One afternoon, I hung up the phone after having established what the action of the story would be for the next several chapters through to the end of the novel, which ones I’d tackle, which ones Eric would. We had a solid plan. The map and compass were in fine working order.
But when I sat down to write, everything I put down on the paper sucked. Big time sucked. That’s fine if I’m working solo. I’ll sit and rewrite a section until it feels right. I’ll scrap a piece a hundred times until I’ve worked out the problems. Except now I was responsible to another author. He was relying on me to get those scenes out. Scenes that affected his ability to do his job and write. Scenes I’d established with him and talked about and agreed to. I mean, we wrote them down on a document so it was all very official and serious. They made sense. They flowed. But what flowed out of me was stinking up the page.
So, I tried again. I doubled down. A strong work ethic would get it going. I worked late into the night to the wee hours of the morning. It’s my preferred time to work so it’s not like staying up is out of habit. Finally, I scrapped the garbage I was producing. I didn’t save the pages. They weren’t worth saving and I’d be ashamed to show them to anyone, let alone another writer. Let alone Eric Walters!
I got some water. I sat back down. I went back and reread our last few chapters. My mind wandered back to the earliest conversations Eric and I had about the story and our characters. We had talked about how not all the things someone inherits are physical, tangible things, and how some inheritances are not positives. Our father in the story inherited a car from his father. What else did he take possession of? What was he passing on to his son?
And I stopped trying so hard and wrote. It wasn’t the next chapter Eric and I had agreed upon only hours before. I was blowing the plot. Yet, the scene flew out. Finally! It felt right. It spoke to who our characters were and what they were struggling with. It gave me a chance to pause with them and let them resonate.
I wrote an email and attached the chapter for Eric. I went to bed thinking, Why? Why couldn’t I just write down what I had agreed to write? I’d made a commitment to Eric, one of my own design. I had shaped that outlining document as much as he had. It all sounded good. So, why? And why did I hit send before I thought better of it? I hoped Eric didn’t see this as some act of rebellion or me thinking I knew better. These self-doubts were only replaced by exhaustion.
When I answered my phone the next day, Eric began receiving my apologies stammered out almost as soon as we’d said Hello. He asked me where the scene had come from and I told him how I’d tried, I really really tried to write what we agreed on, I knew I’d thrown the plotline off, we could scrap it if it wasn’t good, I’d try again, but that first conversation we’d had came back and the scene was the only thing that didn’t feel completely wrong, I was sorry! I blew the plot!
Eric listened then said, “Plots are meant to be blown. It’s the only reason you write them down.”
If you’re curious, the scene in question takes place in the grandfather’s garage in our upcoming middle grade novel, On The Line from Orca Book Publishers. Eric agreed that it was a scene worthy of blowing a plot on. It was what was needed. My instincts had been on but only after I failed and failed and failed then stopped to listen to them.
We rejigged the storyline. The work wasn’t nearly as bad or as much as I thought. A small transition. A bit of reordering. It was all good. . .
Until we had to rework the document again because, well, I guess I just love a monkey wrench and because plots are only made to be blown. Of course, Eric already knew that. He is a master plotter, after all.
Paul Coccia is the author of Cub, The Player, as well as co-author of On The Line with Eric Walters. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and is often found baking in his Toronto kitchen with his nephew, three dogs and a parrot who loves spaghetti (but isn’t crazy about meatballs.)