If you want order start with a little chaos
A short search through the blogosphere will reveal that writers are often of two opinions about their method of writing. Either they prefer to start with a well-laid-out outline, or they ditch the outline and write their magnum opus without one, by the seat of their pants.
Soon after finishing NaNoWriMo 2007 with a dandy 50,037-word, seat-of-pants manuscript that was practically useless, I tried to reign in the horrible mess by outlining what I had already written. This was exactly like herding cats, enormous and frustrating. So giving up on it was easy.
My great manuscript was a mystery story, and though I pounded away at it all month, it came down to a handful of poorly stitched together scenes. All of these scenes were important in some way. I wanted to understand my heroine and get her into and out of some trouble. But the plot was practically nonexistent, and I even went down a path I did not particularly enjoy, having her pursue her investigation by logging into an online social website a la Second Life. None of it was working out!
And then just recently the reason hit me: the novel was floundering because I new nothing about the actual crime! Oh, I had a vague idea, but nothing solid; and let’s face it, the crime is central to the mystery. Without a sense of whodunit, whydunit, whendunit, and howsitcoveredup there was going to be no novel.
An outline was key. Having one would be the result of thinking out all the details and red herrings central to a good mystery story. Now, I like the idea of having an outline to give me a sense of order and purpose. But because I’m not used to thinking about a story in terms of writing an outline, I always ran into a roadblock; the energy of this story always petered out, and I gave up easily.
But now I have a purpose and a plot for this mystery. What changed was how I looked at creating an outline. [A small digression: I am usually an all-or-nothing kind of thinker. If I use an outline I have to write everything in outline form. This meant that I had to have it already thought out, which meant that somehow something (the outline) had to come from nothing (chaos), but that I couldn't acknowledge the chaos part because the plotting process was supposed to be neat and orderly.] I started to let a little chaos back into my thinking. I thought, Yes, it will be better to have an outline, BUT FIRST I will do a little non-linear creating to get the plot going.
I new next to nothing about the crime, as I’ve already said. So to develop the crime’s story arch I started to write the scene where the criminal confesses everything that happened. I put in some characterization to liven it up. But more to the point, I wrote the scene without any preconception as to how it would turn out. As I wrote it I gave myself permission to discover what happened at the crime scene at the same time as the heroine. I inserted a little seat-of-pants chaos into my outline. Now I know the crime, who committed it, and why. Now I can plot out the timeline, the clues, the red herrings. And once that is done, I can stick my heroine into the thick of it with all of her own personal story and make the two storylines clash and crash all they can to make things interesting.
Here’s the essence of what I’ve just discovered: if you’re a seat-of-pants writer who wants to make a switch into creating an outline, go for it. But if the actual process of making that outline seems too epic, try to start by writing a scene out without plotting it just to see where it goes. This actually become a part of the plot, or illuminates the plot, and it always happens that you discover something interesting that you didn’t know. Give yourself permission to put the chaos into the order.