Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline

I'm at that juncture in writing a novel when I'd much rather write a blog post. (Some writers would probably point out that one is liable to meet with many such junctures in the course of writing a novel. They would be right.)

No doubt it would be better to resist this impulse and just force myself to stare at my computer for the time I'm now spending on this blog post, but I thought if I described where I'm at it might conceivably be of interest to others, writers and readers both. And it might even help me figure out what to do next with the novel.

Here's where I'm at: after several years of research and two abortive drafts of perhaps 50 pages each, I've now started another draft, and I have about 20 pages. I feel that I've finally figured out my focus in terms of voice and time span and characters, and I have a general sense of what's going to happen. The question is, do I now try to outline, in somewhat more detail, a plot?

I don't really know what most other writers do about this, but I suspect it varies. I've certainly heard writers say that they just start with a situation or a character and see where the writing takes them. I would guess that this is the more "literary" approach. But I did just browse through an article about plot in an issue of Writer's Digest that said something like, "It's a good idea to sketch out as much of the plot as possible in advance. I always like to know where I'm going. Don't you?"

Well, yes, actually. Generally speaking, I like to plan things ahead of time. In fact, this has been a point of contention for many years between my husband and myself. He's a big proponent of what he terms "spontaneity," particularly with regard to family vacations, and he thinks my insistence on having, say, hotel reservations and a general itinerary is micromanaging to the point of joylessness. Years ago I told him: fine, you can have one night of "spontaneity." This led to a situation where we arrived at a ramshackle, haunted-looking "bed and breakfast" in some godforsaken town in upstate New York, where we appeared to be the only guests, and where our kids (then about seven and ten) flatly refused to spend the night.

But that, of course, is beside the point. The point is that I do like to plan ahead in most areas of my life. Why not when I'm writing a novel?

Maybe because I'd like to think I'm too "literary" for that sort of thing--that my characters will come alive and simply take over, as writers are wont to claim their characters do. Unfortunately, my characters show that kind of initiative only rarely. Instead, what often happens is that I get to the end of a scene or a chapter and I have little or no idea what to do with them next. Eventually I think of something, but I can't help wondering if there isn't some better way to go about this.

With my first novel--which was in many ways a learning experience--after I thought I was done writing I ended up cutting about 200 pages, mostly from the beginning, on the advice of a publishing-industry professional who said the story started too slowly. With my second novel--also in many ways a learning experience--I was told by another publishing-industry professional, after I thought I was done, that I didn't have a plot. While I think that was something of an exaggeration, I did end up shoehorning another plot into the novel (no mean feat, let me tell you). Both of these changes made the novels better, but it would have been a lot easier if I'd been able to just write them that way the first time around.

The problem, of course, is that difficult as it is to write a novel without a plot outline, in some ways it's even more difficult to come up with the outline. An unfleshed-out plot can seem ridiculous and mechanical: first she does this, and then she does that, and then she realizes something else. It's enough to make you lose faith in your own endeavor. Plus, all that stuff that makes the plot (one hopes) seem less ridiculous--dialogue, nuance, perceptions--sometimes leads to an unexpected twist. Even if the characters don't exactly take over, on occasion you realize something as a result of having written a scene that causes you to rethink your plan: now that she's said or done X, she would never go on to do Y.

On the other hand, that's no reason not to try. There aren't any plot police roaming around who will force you to stick to your outline--just as, if you pass some intriguing and unanticipated roadside attraction on a family vacation, no one will actually prevent you from stopping. That doesn't mean you shouldn't make a hotel reservation for that evening. And if the roadside attraction is really intriguing, you can always change the reservation.

Actually, I've already done some planning. Earlier this week I banged out a seven- or eight-page summary of the plot. It was helpful, but at the same time discouraging. There's a lot I have to work out in terms of what happens when, and who does what to whom. And given that I'm working with some real people and real events, it can get pretty complicated.

So I just dug out an old artifact that I used to help me with my first novel, also based on the lives of historical figures: it's a huge roll of paper I bought when my kids were little, because I read in some catalogue it would be perfect for art projects calling for ... well, huge pieces of paper. My kids made a banner or two, but never used it much. Then, when I was writing A More Obedient Wife--a novel that was based on the lives of four real people and spanned a period of about eight years--I unrolled a length of it and turned it into a time line.

In that case, I ended up putting way too much information on it, but it was better than nothing. I'm hoping that this time I can be more disciplined. Now that I have a sense of what real events, and what people, are important to my story (which only covers about one year instead of eight), maybe I won't throw in everything but the kitchen sink. And I'm focusing on one historical figure rather than four.

Of course, I'll still be left with my other main character--a fictional one. What will I do about her? I'll save that for another blog post. After all, there's bound to be another point, soon, when I'd rather write a blog post than a novel.

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