Saturday, October 14, 2006

Outline If You Must

After a brief break, the reposting marathon continues.
I said I would discuss outlines.

I don't do them.

Well, not ahead of time. I write as I go, so to keep track of what's in each scene, I outline as I go. Using an idea someone posted on AOL's SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) boards a while back, probably Patricia Wrede, I use Excel. I have columns for: chapter #, scene #, pov character, main action in the scene, any major revelations in the scene and who learns it, anything else that would be something I'd need to know for the story. For my WIP, I have a column for what the "bad guys" are doing behind the scenes, so when I need to use them, I'll know what the current state is of their nefarious plans.

And to make it easier to see, I color code the pov characters for their pov scenes, so I can see at a glance how each is distributed. I suppose one could use colors in the actual file (in whichever program for whatever outline one is making), but I use highlighters on the hardcopy so I don't need to use up the cartridges for the color printer. I have lots and lots of highlighters, all the colors I could find.

I don't outline ahead of time because that would require that I figure out what will happen and how things end. I might have an idea of the ending at some point during the writing, but I don't know all that middle stuff til I get to it or get close, maybe a scene or two away. If I worked it out ahead of time, I'd lose interest in writing it. Which gets back to the "why do you write?" question. I write for two reasons as I believe I've said here: to get the stories out of my head and to find out how they end.

Other writers love figuring it out, outlining, then filling in the details. Some writers need outlines in some form as a crutch, anchor, aid, etc. Patricia Wrede has often talked about her process of writing an outline, writing three chapters, tossing the no-longer relevant outline, writing a new outline, writing the next three chapters, tossing the no-longer relevant outline, writing a new outline, writing the next three chapters, and repeating the process as often as needed before she's close enough to the end to not need it.

Some writers, like I mostly do, write linearly, ie, in order. I can deviate a bit if I'm following one pov, then go back to catch up scenes with another pov character, but I've been doing that less and less over the years.

Some writers write out of order, then fill in the stuff in between, while others work backward. I've heard of some mystery writers who do that. In many cases, the way the writer writes, the order of things, is likely to be a factor in how much they need or want to outline. In a way, my first draft can be considered a very dense, very detailed outline as it's where I put the story together. And while I create general character bios, I also fill in details about them in the writing, flesh them out, learn more about them, and that leads to the story. They develop together in a way, and I wouldn't have that extra understanding of them if I outlined first.

Some writers feel doing a draft as I do is a time-waster, that if I--or any non-outliner--would simply plan things out in advance, we could avoid a lot of messy revision, tossing of scenes, etc. I feel making an outline--for me--is the time-waster, as the few times I did outline way back when, I never stuck to the things. And I'd still have to take time writing the story, and revising, etc. So why not just plunge in.

Which makes it interesting when I write with a collaborator who outlines and actually insists on it, as my science fiction collaborator does. She needs to plan out the whole story, and will outline a few chapters ahead of the writing. If someone else does all that work, I don't, which means, for some unfathomable reason answerable somewhere deep in my personality, I guess, I can write my "assigned" scenes without a problem. The burden of thought and planning isn't mine and I can just relax and enjoy the actual writing.

So, outline if you want or must. I have nothing against the things. But if they don't work for you, don't sweat it. Just find what does work, the thing that leads you to a finished draft, because that's where the real "fun" begins: revising, editing, proofing. Which is a whole 'nother topic. And as varied in approaches as this one.
Someone posted a quote from Hillerman on the AOL Fiction board that fits so wonderfully with what I've been saying. So I Googled him and found a nice interview with him. This is an except:

"An anonymous reader wrote:
I'm one of those who originally started reading "Coyote Waits" and "Thief of Time" for the Navajo element, rather than the mysteries themselves -- I can't stand most other mystery novels -- but the stories themselves keep improving! I didn't enter the Leaphorn/Chee series in any linear fashion, so (among other things) I got poor Jim's girlfriends all out of order; but with each novel the Hillerman style improves and enriches itself. With the plots of the mysteries themselves -- how do you create these? Do you plan everything out beforehand while trout fishing, mapping out each detail and skid mark? Or do you start out with a general sense of the mood and motion of the story, and let it write itself? Does one way or the other lend itself to a mystery?

Tony Hillerman's response:
It takes me a year or so to write a book, usually more because I get stuck. Whereup I like to drive out to the Big Rez and take a fresh look at the landscape I'm using. I have never been able to outline anything, so I begin knowing a kernal of the plot, such as the twist the mystery will turn on. Also pick the setting, the time of year. Then I write first chapters until I get one that leads into a second chapter. I day dream my way into each scene and know it well (time of day, mood the characters are in, way the wind is blowing, what information I want to impart, etc.) before I sit down at the old word processor to write it. Usually do just one draft, with heavy rewritting of each chapter as I work on it."
From the AOL message board; someone found the quote we were wondering about:
>It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights,
>but you can make the whole trip that way.
>- E. L. Doctorow

I've been doing some thinking about this, in terms of questions on the AOL board re: how you know which way, when you get to the end, roads having signs, etc.

And for me, it's not that there are no road signs. They just don't happen to say the sorts of things one would find on an outline. Those headlights illuminate for me signs that say, "Keep going this way." Occasionally, one might say, "Wrong way, go back," or "Don't turn this way." But I don't know why that would be. I just trust those signs to be right. And at some point, I reach a sign that says, "The End."

And I had to learn to trust them, meaning, I had to learn to trust my instincts, my process, my internal editor.

The discussion on the AOL Fiction board re: outlining/planning vs winging it got interesting as a couple of the "don't outline at your own peril" group actually posted some commentary that encourages discussion. I liked my answer to someone who was asking someone else, that I decided to post it here. Three people have come forward to say they don't know the ending before they start writing (the original question), and each writes with a somewhat difference process than me or each other. It was suggested that wing-it writers lack a certain discipline and motivation and J answered that she started one piece with character, theme, and a structure. She just had no ending in mind. So C asked if she had some strong emotions she wanted to explore. C's main issue seems to be not one of destination as much as direction, which I find interesting in this context, because direction can mean many things. So I wrote the following dissertation post, using my WIR as an example of my process, with editorial revisions:

My WIR started with character and setting only. I'm writing a collaborative science fiction series with a friend. She mostly created the universe and I added things here and there. She did the history and I've tweaked it a bit. The novel we started is on hold due to her medical problems so I decided to try writing an earlier story from the timeline and went through it. One item, set 120 years earlier, caught my eye:

"Blood Plain Disaster" and the date. That was it. I decided it was a cave-in that killed hundreds of people who were trying to build a city on Mars, which is what our series is about: the colonization of Mars. Not everything can run smoothly, after all, so my collaborator, D, stuck in the entry, having had no further thought about it.

So I decided on some characters. The protagonist was someone whose parents had died in the disaster. There was a military guy who was to become his buddy (that never happened) and a woman construction worker who was to become his girlfriend (sorta happened in first incomplete draft, didn't happen in the second incomplete draft, sorta happened in the finished first draft).

I filled in the setting with characters in responsible positions in the military and corporate entity, both of which are built into the universe, defining the political climate.

I picked the first scene. Protag gets to visit the disaster site with a military guide. I had the universe, the culture, the city maps, the science of Mars (climate, so to speak, plus gravity, how to build which was culled from Robert Zubrin's books on the subject, among others, etc), slang expression, and so on, but no story.

I started to write. By the end of the first scene, when protag decides he needs to know if the disaster was an accident or sabotage, I realized I was writing a mystery of sorts. That was cool. A revelation. A few scenes later, I found myself writing about the upcoming presidential election, then stopped to make notes. Apparently, this was now also about the politics involved in this momentous event.

Each scene gave me the idea for what followed and slowly, over the course of a year, scenes begat scenes begat scenes, til I stalled cuz I'd written too many possibilities and things weren't narrowing down. I decided to scrap 40,000 or so words and pick up again at the point where things seemed to have taken a detour. I added a mystery character, whose role I didn't know til I started writing him. Another 40,000 words and I hit the same wall.

And realized the protag was wrong. He had the wrong personality. He wasn't pushing the action forward. He was simply reacting too much. I revamped him. I also dropped a couple of characters from pov to non-pov, elevated 2 other characters from non-pov to pov status and got going again. Scenes moved forward so quickly this time, I knew I was on the right track. At the point in the story (the 2/3 mark) where I'd previously stalled, lights lit up ahead and I saw clear thru to the end. It was amazing.

Twenty scenes popped into my mind and I jotted them down in order in the file. I needed another 5 when I actually wrote them, but it all came together. I needed to go back to the first third and revise to fit. Other inconsistencies can be caught in revision.

What is the story about? Well, on one level, it's about finding the truth, though I had no interest at the onset in writing about that. I wanted to explore the protag guy because I liked him. I like him even more now that he's been revamped.

Theme? Well, my friend built some things into the universe, so they're always there, but since I don't agree with a lot of her conclusions and points, I don't know how much of them got into the story. I'm not that good at seeing themes in what I read or in what I write.

And here's where we get to direction and what it means. My direction is forward. Here's the situation. What does the protag do? What does the antag do? What do the supporting characters do? How do they interact? As I write all that happening, I see things coming up. If I created good characters who I can feel, this comes easily. Originally, the protag didn't come easily, and I should have realized sooner he was the main problem, but I'm still learning about this process thing.

I can't see anything if I try to outline because that's me telling imposing structure on the characters rather than witing and seeing how the characters impose structure on the story. Because fully realized characters, ones given the right tools of personality and position, will do certain things and not others. Poorly developed ones will do what I want them to do even if out of character and the thing flounders. And I don't really know my characters til I write them doing stuff, ie in a story.

And finally, re: motivation and lack of same, it sounds like just a different type of motivation, not a lack of one. I do the thinking once I have scenes written to mull over. My thinking is along the lines of "What comes next?" not "Where am I going?" In a way, I'm doing it all at the same time, not in separate steps of planning and writing, at least not when it comes to the actual story. And yet, despite all my worldbuilding, I still do some of that as I go, too. Because I simply can't think of everything in advance.

In a follow-up post, re: a question as to whether or not spending a couple of hours thinking how to resolve the problem that I had to rewrite 40,000 words twice to figure out, I said:

But I would have had the same problem. I could have written the whole thing in outline. I know because that's what I did when I started writing (the 3 novels stuffed in my file cabinet, outlined and sorta drafted between 15 and 30 years ago).

With one, when I tried to write it, the wonderful outline didn't make any sense and I couldn't bring myself to start it over because it was too been there, done that for me. With the second, I just lost interest before I could actually write it. The third was a novella-length fan fic that could easily be made into an original novel. By changing the characters to new ones with the same personality and similar jobs, all I'd need to do is take out the TV show references and fill out the prose with character descriptions and and some details not needed in fan fic. And again, I lost interest in doing that once I did the bios for the new characters. Because in my mind, in all three cases, I'd already figured out the story in some fashion and had no interest in writing any of them a second time.

And in that first case, I realized that what seems to work in outline won't necessarily work, for me, in the writing. So I basically, would have to start over, so why bother outlining? I like to think that I did write an outline this time. It's just 110,000 words long. :)

As for whether or not I think about anything I'm writing, I do, all the time. In my sleep, on the way to and from work, in the shower.... I plot noodle with my collaborator. We talk about the characters and it was after months of talking and experimenting (draft 2) that I finally realized what the problem was.

A couple of hours just wouldn't have cut it. Trying to figure it out with a skimpy outline instead of a fuller sequence of scenes in a story for me would be inefficient because that wouldn't be a proper representation of the characters or events. They're different approaches and one works better for some people and the other for other people. I find it easier and more efficient to do the latter.

And I think I needed to write the interim incomplete draft of the WIR in order for my mind to work out the actual resolution. It just wasn't going to come to me all at once.
The Snowflake Process

This has generated a lot of discussion, mostly not favorable, on rasfc, so I thought I'd post the link here and a couple of my answers to the person who posted it there and to some other comments.
The Snowflake Process for Writing a Novel

Here's what I had to say with some snipping to pull out direct responses to other people that would make no sense here without them. And yes, I've posted some of this stuff here before, but it bears repeating, I think.

This might be useful to some folks, not to others, and not to me. His timeframe for each step is a bit much. I don't know such things as obstacles to the characters til I write the story.

What really gets me annoyed (mostly things said over at that other board where we first "met," but I've heard it elsewhere, too) is when people tell me that outlining first (with scenes listed or not) would save me the time I "waste" by having to keep tossing what I write that doesn't work. And no matter how much I explain that I could write any number of outlines, it won't make a difference. I still will either lose interest in writing the thing cuz I already worked it all out or worse, the outline would be a big waste of time, itself cuz it would have the same flaws the drafts I write have.

I can't work out the story til I know the characters and put them into the story to do their thing. I would control the outline, which never works right (yeah, I did try that years ago), but the characters control the drafts. And that was where my first 2 drafts of the WIP went awry: I was trying to exert some control over it. In other words, I was thinking too much. Of course, there was a problem with the protagonist, too, but I never would have seen that in a neat little outline, but I sure saw it after writing 60,000 words (just didn't want to admit it the first time through).

I accept that writers often spend more time on something than other writers would or do. To those of us spending the time doing what we need to, which is part of the learning process for us re: our story, it's necessary. To an observer who doesn't work that way, it looks like we're wasting time. Why does everything need to be efficient and cost effective? Why do so many people seem to treat this as a business model? For me, writing isn't business. Trying to sell it, is.

For me, I rarely have an actual story I want to write. I write to discover a story. I start with characters, setting, plot, with plot being anything from a germ of an idea that's part of the setting to a what if question to Deb, my collaborator, wrote a line about a disaster during the colonization of Mars on the timeline leading up to the story we'd been writing and put on hold due to her health problems and I thought it sounded intriguing so I figured I could try writing it, having nothing more to work with than this statement: (year, which I ended up changing), Blood Plain disaster. At least we'd already worked out how cities were being built on Mars so I had a place to start, a way a disaster could occur--cave-in!

So I had setting (Mars) and plot idea (cave-in). Then I needed characters and I started with a guy whose parents were killed in the disaster and I figured there would need to be an investigation, so I created the investigators. I knew there were corporate and military folks, from our universe's structure, so I created the relevant ones. I spent a lot of time on characters, ended up added another 8 or so by the time I finished the 3 (and first complete) draft, and ended up tossing or relegating to bystander status another 4 characters I originally thought would be important but they didn't work out when I was writing. I didn't know what/who had caused the cave-in til I was well into the second draft (I couldn't decide during draft 1, which was due to problems with the protag and my own interference).

That's how I write. I call it organic. Each piece leads to the next and I have to write it for it to work. Outlining isn't enough. In many ways, my draft is my outline, just very long (110,000 words for the WIR).

And in answer to someone asking why I disliked people with writing plans, I said:

There is no right or wrong, just what works for you. To be honest, I wish I'd accepted that I needed to adjust the protag after the first draft, not after the second. But live and learn. He was a good character, but not right for that story, yet the changes were minor. I made him a bit more self-righteous, altered details in his background--he went from being the son of spies who didn't want to be a spy to the son of spies who had been a spy and quit cuz he hated it. But that meant he had the expertise to do what was needed and could drive the action forward where his first version was too much the cerebral bystander and that was BORING. It also was getting me nowhere.

But then, I create characters in general form and develop them during the writing of the story. That's how I learn about them, seeing them in action. Not everyone works that way or wants to. :)

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