Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Interjecting About Outlines and Semantics

I think, in general, I’m opposed to the term “outline.”

The word itself is ugly and thoroughly unrepresentative of the pre-writing thinking that I do (and I *do* do it, despite my tendency towards composting, er, organic thinking.) The word outline calls to mind hours wasted in social studies or English class performing some kind of trained-monkey, “critical thinking exercise.” It involves Roman Numerals.

I. Ways to Kill My Creativity
A. Make me write/think in some highly-structured, artificial way.

B. Make me always have to follow an A with a B.

II. More of the Same Until My Head Explodes or I Never Want to Write Again, Whichever Comes First

This being said, absolutely no editor (or agent) has ever asked me to produce anything that resembles the above in any way.

I do write book proposals/chapter synopses (which, no doubt, Kelly will be covering momentarily,) which should never be called outlines, even though they are. What a book proposal/chapter synopsis really is -- is a narrative description of the key emotional and pivotal plot moments in your novel. There is, btw, a fantastic book that helps an author write a pitch proposal for an agent or editor, which I would love to recommend: Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook, Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract. (My personal experience is that chapter six, which concentrates on writing the synopsis, is worth the cover price alone.) This I do. I’ve written what is basically a story about the story I’m going to write for every novel I’ve sold subsequent to Archangel Protocol (which sold the traditional way, via an agent to an editor as a completed manuscript.)

I write very detailed synopses with a core conflict, a middle, and a tidy, little ending. I submit this to my agent who sells it to my editor, and then I forget about it completely until I find that I’m stuck and can’t remember what’s supposed to happen next. In the meantime, I do, in fact, follow my characters down those proverbial alleyways, get lost, meander, and generally flounder as I write. I consider this process the absolute BEST part of writing. It makes me a slow writer. It means a lot of revisions. But, I wouldn’t enjoy writing nearly so much if I couldn’t get caught up in the magic of letting the organic, creative bits of my brain take over and rule my fingertips for hours at end. Anything else, to me, would be tantamount to assembly line work, and, frankly, the job satisfaction would plummet and I’d quit.

All that being said, I can no longer imagine what it would be like to start writing a novel without knowing the complete story in my head. I don’t think I could finish anything if I didn’t know where I was intending to go. Joan Vinge talked to me about this in an interview I did with her for Science Fiction Chronicle (now The Chronicle, not of higher education or the other SF.) She used the metaphor of a car trip. For her, novel writing is like gathering a group of friends at one coast and saying, “Hey, let’s take a trip to California!” She knows who’s in the car (though she may not know everything about them) and where, in general, they’re headed (though not the specific destination.) Everything else just happens... Kind of like certain bodily functions.


It works for me, too.


Kelly McCullough said...

Outline. Synopsis. Travel plan. Sketch. What you call it really doesn't matter except in choosing terminology you're comfortable with. You could even call it Francis if you wanted. It makes no nevermind to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to note that Lyda has a valuable point in that if the term outlining has the sort of visceral negative implications for you that Lyda implies it has for her, then perhaps "overview", "synopsis", or "travel planner" are better terms. Functionally, though, those things are the same in their purpose and very similar in their structure and appearance.

And, for good measure, I don't think anyone is talking about a I.A.i.a.1 style of outline, which is how an essay or an argument is structured, but not particularly a narrative. I tend to use 1, 2, 3..., and they tend to be broken into chapters.

Douglas Hulick said...

I naturally outline using the Roman Numbers, letters, etc. system, indents and all (I even turn it on in Word). It's how I tend to organize my thoughts on paper - past the initial brain-storming stage, anyhow. Hell, it's even how I took notes during lecture in college. What, you mean everyone doesn't unconsciously break down and reconstruct the strucutre of the lecture as they hear it? ;p

That being said, I know I am something of an abberation, and so I see Lyda's point. And even when I do outline, I find I tend to stray as the writing itself commences. Which is okay. One of the biggest traps with "outlining" or "overviewing" or whatever you want to call it is thinking you MUST follow the plan as originally set down. No, no, no! Writing is a creative process, and it needs freedom to move and mutate. Whether that take the form of a minor variation from The Structured Plan, or is more of a "we need to get to California...head west!" process is up to each writer.

Find what works for you - and keep finding and adjusting it as necessary.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Doug, so I suppose I don't think anyone... is a bit more absolute than necessary, though I'll still submit that you're the odd duck on that one.

Douglas Hulick said...

I actually tend to agree with you, Sean, in that the "classic" outline model lends itself better to essays, arguments, etc. It is wonderful for organizing thoughts, building structure, adressing specific talking points, and so on.

Is it the best model for creative writing, though? Depends on the writer. Since I tend to lean that way in terms out outlining, it is where I go first, but that doesn't always mean it works the best. Frankly, I am still trying to find the "right" system for me with longer pieces of fiction, much as Kelly had to do with his first few books. I'm just many books behind. :)

So while I think in terms of classic outline, in some ways I am still trying to determine if that it what serves me best when it comes to developing and laying out the story itself.

Kelly Swails said...

I like the "car trip" analogy, though my trip is a little more detailed. As in, "We're absolutely starting in Maine. We're definitely stopping in St. Louis, Grand Canyon, and Vegas. We're definitely ending on Hollywood Boulevard. If we get there via Canada, whatever. Oh, and if I find during the trip one of my friends is an ax murder? Fantastic!"

lydamorehouse said...

It might not matter what you call it, but when I first started writing novels I felt I HAD to outline like that and it pretty much scared the crap out of me.