Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on The Outline -- c.anne.gardner

If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it's going to be average. Derek Walcott

I want to talk about plotting this week, as in: How much plotting do we actually do? I am thinking about the conscious proactive stuff, and do you think over plotting can make a story average at best, contrived at worse?

Some writers live for the outline, and I can see where that would be extremely helpful especially if you are writing an epic say like Lord of the Rings or even Stephen King's The Stand, which is one of my all time favourite books, BTW. When writing that sort of novel, you've got a lot of time and space to keep straight, not to mention all those characters to keep track of. However, some writers just don't work that way. To over analyse the story like that would put unnecessary constraints on the process and would limit the freedom of movement that stream of consciousness writing normally has.

I am kind of in the middle of the road here. I never consciously say, "This should happen next, and this is the result I want." The process for me is more fluid in an emotionally subterranean way.

My stories just come to me, and they are usually influenced by some sort of catalyst: a news article, something I overheard, something I witnessed that got me hot under the collar. So there is always an underlying intent present at the onset -- intent meaning more the underlying theme, not a particular point I am trying to make because a story will be interpreted differently by different readers, so foisting ones authorial opinion is never a wise idea. Anyway, that intent, or whatever it is, comes to me in the form of scenes -- daydreamed mostly -- which I make sure I write down as sloppily and as soon as I can. Yes, I keep notebooks and post it notes at hand no matter where I am. After I have collected a few scenes, a story begins to develop in my mind. I can now get myself intimately acquainted with the characters that have made themselves known to me. In this case, I do some brief outlining as in where they were born, where they went to school, how old are they, what they look like, how they dress, and have they had any trauma to contend with, etc. Some of that will be written into the story, but much of it is simply for my own reference. I do the same with story location. I research my locales, download pictures to post on my desktop, study the culture and the history of a place ... but again, much of that is just background noise because in my stories, the characters interact more with each other than with the world they inhabit. Much of my research is used only for scene setting and a bit of mood to ground the story in a time and/or place for the reader, and even then, it’s all open to debate. I don’t necessarily like to lock a story into any particular place or time. In Kissing Room the entire story takes place inside a local pub, and I did that so the reader could experience the confinement the main character felt. It would be a cheap movie to make: one location, no waiting.

But I digress. After I have a bunch of scenes, usually 10-13 or so, I re-read them through and give them titles, as these will more or less later become individual chapters. At this point, I start moving them around in an effort to develop a reasonably coherent story arc, and yes, it has been known to happen, much to my chagrin at the time, that the scene I chose for my first chapter won't be the right one when I get to the editing/revision stages. That, however, is a struggle for a different day much later down the road. After I get everything roughly organized into a first draft, I start what I call the filling in and filling out part of the writing: adding the background scenery, the descriptive content, the mood and movement, and all the transitional stuff that will get me from one scene to the next. I write novellas, so I tend to write very lean in the first few drafts. I find adding easier than cutting, so I don't get obsessed with word count. The right words matter more to me since I use so few of them.

I normally do three rough drafts, and then I back away from the manuscript for at least 3-6 months. Sin-eater -- now titled And Death Dreamt Us All -- sat for over a year, and even now, I find myself still re-arranging things, so I don't know how well an outline would really work for me when it comes to plotting one of my stories. I think a formal outline, while it might offer comfort for other writers, would only make me feel boxed in, but if you live for the outline, I was reminded of a Microsoft Word add-in that's currently getting some great feedback: it's called WritingOutliner, so check it out.

How heavily and formally do you plot your stories? And as a reader, how aware are you of what some might consider over-plotting?

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never plotted anything in fact one of my pet phrases is that my books don’t have a plot but they do have a point. Of course by the time I’m done they do end up with a thin plot but nothing you could call a subplot. The closest I ever came to an outline was deciding about three chapters into my fourth novel how it had to end. At that point I wrote the last chapter and then all I had to do was get my characters there in an interesting fashion. I like the idea of having an outline and I’ve thought a few times over the years of pinching someone else’s because the hardest part of writing for me is the story as I’m far more interested in the characters and they could be doing pretty much anything. In fact if you look at Living with the Truth in particular what is it that Jonathan does? He gets up, goes to work, has lunch, goes back to work, goes home – nothing of any consequence – in fact in my third book pretty much all the protagonist does is walk back and forth from the park at the end of the road.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I like those kind of books. I don't think characters have to do anything necessarily, they just have to want something. The greatest books for me to read are where the characters simply want to understand themselves.

I usually know how a story begins and how it ends. I spend the bulk of my time trying to get from point A to point B and have something to say about it in the process.

I do a lot of outlines at my day job, I just can't seem to make it work for me in the creative department though.