Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 3

(see Part ONE & TWO)

CE: You’ve said in past interviews that you’re a SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) writer. Has your aversion to plotting and outlines changed at all since you’ve worked on a three-book series?

DC:  It’s not so much an aversion as an inability. I can’t outline. Most of the time I have a sort of vague sense of the overall character arc, a general idea of where I want to arrive in the end, and some of the anecdotal material I’d like to use if and when it fits, but the motivations that get characters from one chapter to the next come from the characters themselves. I can usually find things for them to do that sort of steer them in the direction I’d like them to go, but the characters simply won’t do it if the motivation isn’t there.

I’ve heard it said that writing a book is like driving at night; you can only see so far, but you can make the whole trip that way. Some people are only comfortable when the whole trip is mapped out in detail, and to be honest I’m sure they make fewer wrong turns than I do. Sometimes I get stuck and have to turn around, which costs me time, but I’m also aware that the really breathtaking moments in stories are the unexpected turns. For instance, a writer has to be willing to make room for a walk-on. In every book I’ve written I’ve had at least one character walk onto the stage completely unforeseen. Those invariably turn out to be the most interesting characters, like Domingo in Paradise Valley. He showed up on his own, constantly surprising me with the things he did and said. If a character surprises the writer you can be fairly sure he’ll surprise the reader.

CE: In writing this series, how did you approach weaving the daughters’ shorter storylines in each book in with the father’s overarching series storyline? (Please don’t say it just fell together. Lie if you must.)

DC:  I was concerned about that very thing, so I asked advice from a little guy on the stool next to me in a bar in Darjeeling (long story), four years ago. Turned out he was the great nephew of Tenzing Norgay, and he took me to a wizened old guru in a sacred cave high in the Himalayas. After seven hours of kneeling and chanting I was finally allowed to put my question to the guru, and he answered in a frail, high-pitched voice, “You must have faith, my son. Wing it, and it will fall together.”

 CE: Um, I’m going out on a limb and guessing you went with the lie. Thank you for sharing and for confirming my suspicions.

Back to Summer of Light: There’s a scene that made me drop the book and laugh out loud—Mick with the chainsaw on Aubrey’s front lawn. You built that moment up beautifully. You’re a master of wry humor. How do you incorporate it in a novel? Would you say it begins with being an SOTPer?

DC:  No, I think it begins with being Southern. I really hate to admit this, but here’s the truth: almost all of the really funny stuff actually happened. I got the chainsaw story from a lunatic cousin; I could never have made that up. Or the pretend cigars, for that matter. Or the goat in the house. Or the dog in the tree house. Listen, if you don’t howl with laughter at least once a day, either you’re wound too tight or you’re not paying attention. Absurdities swarm around us like gnats. For a writer, the real trick is in knowing when and how to use one of those stories.

CE: What has been your biggest challenge or roadblock in writing, and how did you overcome it?

DC:  My biggest roadblock is the same as everyone else’s—myself. It’s hard to convince yourself you can write well, that you can write a book, that you can find an agent, that you can actually get a contract with a publisher, that you won’t be humiliated by critics or shunned by readers. Leaps of faith, all of them, with conflicting advice shouted from the sidelines the whole way, and self-doubt nipping at your heels. Ignore them all and leap anyway. Never mind the scars.

CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?

(for the answer to this and the rest of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 4)

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13 thoughts on “Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 3

  1. Loved what you said about SOTP writing. I think I’m a bit of a hybrid. I have a very loose outline, but I DON’T like mapping it all out. And my favorite character in my recent book is a walk on. Go figure!

  2. This interview just keeps getting better and better!
    So … can I get a map to this sacred cave in the Himalayas?

  3. Wow! I’m just getting to this interview and have loved every bit of it. First of all, I admit I’ve never read Amish fiction. I see it everywhere but never thought it’d be my kind of book. I pictured Amish women writing these books. I never imagined a miner/construction worker whose father had been ousted from the Amish community was behind the pen. What a suprise!
    Now that I’ve read this interview, I’m checking into Cramer’s books right now! I’m super impressed with everything he has said. Love how he says to pay attention during the bad parts of your life b/c that’s where God puts the good stuff. And how he honestly approaches the struggles with writing about a private sub-culture (I’m experiencing that now with the Romani Americans). And how he admits he can’t use an outline — I REALLY needed to hear that today!
    Perfect interview. Interesting author. I think I’m already a fan and I haven’t read his stuff yet…stay tuned. I’m heading that way now! Thanks for posting!

  4. Paradise Valley and Growing Up Amish (Smucker) are the only well-written Amish books I’ve ever read. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Kathy – if you liked Paradise Valley, be sure to check out Levi’s Will, and of course, the 2nd in the new series, The Captive Heart, which just released.

  5. What a great interview! Thank you, Dale and Camille. I confess to bafflement as to how SOTP writers do it–you have much faith, that’s for sure! My outline gets me through when I think I can’t do it. 🙂

  6. Okay. I admit to being one of those Mappers. I think I fear wrong turns and ending up in dead-ends with questionable-looking characters eye-balling my wallet and my venti Stabucks. But perhaps I could learn to include a little wandering and meet a few alleycats with potential. But even with a “map”, I leave plenty of room for my characters to grow & tell me who they are, and I’ve also discovered those secondary characters, those “foils” & sidekicks can have an intriguing story all their own, sometimes even edging out the hero/heroine. In my first novel, a couple of quirky old Scottish sisters who are supposed to be secondary characters poke their bulbous noses in and try to take center stage quite often. I’ve been told they are a huge highlight to the story (comic relief if nothing else…). So I suppose even us mappers can be redeemed if we can learn to slow down and develop an eye for detour signs, interesting side roads, quaint hitchhikers, and curious commotions along the shoulder. I’ve probably missed stuff by staying on the interstate. Like Hobbits . . .

  7. The SOTP issue is different for everybody, and, as Paula pointed out, it’s not absolute. Like I said, I have a rough idea of where I want to end up, and I usually know the major events in the story. There are pros and cons either way. Outlining is faster and there are fewer dead-ends, but I think there’s more freedom and inspiration in SOTP. IMO, outline/sotp is closely related to the character/plot debate. Writers who lean toward character-driven are more likely to be SOTP simply because they’re more concerned about character arc and motivation than plot. Does that make sense? My books have been accused of having no discernible plot, yet somehow they still have a beginning and an end.

    • I don’t know if outlining is faster, at least in my case. For me, it’s a way to smooth out holes in the plot before I’ve written 40k words I have to throw out. (not always a bad thing…) This is not necessarily out of wisdom, but admittedly out of laziness. I may be a plotter in the sense I like to plan enough of the scenes to take me through the basic skeleton of the story, but I am 110% a character-driven storyteller/reader. I start with a character and ponder on them awhile, envision situations they are in, then I have to come up with a plot as a vehicle to bring it all on stage. A bit backwards, probably. 🙂 I try to picture the whole thing as though it were a movie and decide what would make someone pay for a ticket so I can see what’s necessary in the actual plot. I think “Plotter” is a misnomer. It should be “Planner”, because it’s not so much about The Plot as it is the method we use for finding the direction & flow of a story.

      There are definitely pros & cons to planning out in advance. I am learning to spot issues with my “stepping stone” scenes when the writing of the story gets to that point and it just feels like I’m squeezing in an event or scene that doesn’t feel organic. At least the ideas are there to work with, and even for a detail freak like me, nothing is set in stone. I am always blown away to hear about stories created by free-writing. My son is a novelist and writes that way and yes, his stories take very intersting turns. Maybe we learn to identify what drives us to travel in the dark or by map, understand if it’s fear, laziness, faith, etc, and learn to use it to our stories’ best advantage. JMO. 🙂

  8. On Humor: I love what you said about finding the absurd all around us, and that you’ve used things you’ve seen & heard in your stories. BUT . . . just for the sake of those here who haven’t read SoL & your other work, the humor in Dale’s writing is about much more than absurd incidents. There is a wealth of humor in the telling itself, in the internal monologue running in the character’s head, and in the character’s worldview on the whole. I am neither a man nor an iron-worker, but totally related to Mick’s humorous take on his life, even if that humor was borne out of the poor guy’s frustrations. This is one of the many beauties of reading great fiction: the chance to relate to the frustrations of another human and come away with a smile. This is worth far more than the twelve bucks you’ll spend on a book. Again, JMO… 🙂

  9. I’m enjoying this interview so much! I love Dale’s take on humor. It’s so difficult to write humor, though. Since we can all relate to frustration, it’s good to know that that can be a perfect starting point when incorporating humor.

  10. The ability to convey humor is a lot like the ability to write in that it’s partly inherent and partly learned. If you don’t have a sense of humor don’t try it, but if you do, you can refine it by studying the technique of people like Mark Twain, Dave Barry, and SJ Perelman. (Perelman comes with a bonus: he’ll increase your vocabulary by 20%. There’s a line in Bad Ground where Weasel Truax is reluctant to go into a certain restaurant because of a confrontation that resulted in his “untimely defenestration.” I got that word from Perelman; it means to be thrown out of a window.) Study wit, and you’ll find it’s mostly about surprise and hyperbole. Southerners learn early that a good lie is funny, but only if it’s BIG. Fred Chappell’s poem ‘My Father’s Hurricane’ has a line that says “It blew my aunt’s glass eyeball out, and unscrewed the lid from a jar of pickles we’d been trying to open for fifteen years.” That’s southern hyperbole.

  11. What a great post! I love the comment about laughing each day about the absurdities all around us! So true! And about how the characters kept surprising him! I wholeheartedly agree! Wonderful interview!

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