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.
It’s December. The sky is overcast. A slight but steady sheet of snow will obscure my driving vision tonight. Among other reasons to be sad in December is that NaNoWriMo is over for this year. (Insert heavy sigh.) Did you get to participate? Did you win? And what are you going to do with your manuscript?
I know how I did…lousy. Yes, I signed up for NaNoWriMo this time, but did not get a single word written. As I’ve mentioned before (and trust me, I feel like I’m just shelling out excuses) my hands were a little tied. The good news is that The Boy is sleeping just a little bit longer at night!
However, though I was not nearly as productive as I would like to have been, I did get some work done on the ms I wrote for the 2007 NaNoWriMo. It got shelved soon after I finished it because it was so awful, and it soon lost the energy it started with. It was a mystery story where I did not know whodunit, whydunit, or even whattheydun, really. That’s how bad it was.
I still believe in the main character and her friends. The idea is still solid. I just have to work on the actual plot. Piece of cake, right? That’s where a post at The Intern caught my eye: NaNoRevisMo, or National Novel Revision Month. Check out the article. It made perfect sense to me. Instead of beating myself up that I couldn’t do NaNoWriMo this year I switched my focus to revising something I already had. I didn’t put any major pressure on myself, just that of working on the ms to prod it along. And IT WORKED. Did I make a lot of progress? No, but I now have non-zero progress in my work. And that feels good. What is more, the little bit of work I did gives me some not little bit of insight on plotting a story that I will share with you soon.
Please please PLEASE comment on how you did this month. Even if NaNoWriMo evaded you, you wrote something, right? Let’s hear about how you did. After all, that’s what it all about.
Well, it’s the end of a busy, busy week. I’d like to comment on how busy it was…but there just isn’t time!
It was a productive week, though, I will say that. After finishing my short story outline last week, I was able to write during two lunch breaks at work, and managed to crank out just over 800 words. I’m sure that compared to other writers, that’s not too productive. But, since 800 is greater than zero I will say the week saw some good productivity. I am targeting a word count of 5000 words for this short story, so if I put some more steam into it I should get it done by the end of a month.
What’s to come next week?
- Another 1000 words, minimum;
- A list of subjects for future blog posts;
- One of those subjects written up and scheduled for posting.
That should do it! Have a great week & keep cranking!
Well, it’s been a busy week. Princess and I celebrated our 11th anniversary yesterday, AND…I actually finished a rough outline for my short story! (and the crowd goes wild!)
Yes, once I did some work on a character write-up for the protagonist, the plot seemed to come into focus more. Imagine that, having some character development was actually good for the story!
Next week, I’ll begin writing the story. Or rather, rewriting the story. I have a couple pages of a first draft that are totally awful. The opening paragraph isn’t bad, but the rest…yuck! I think I’ve left the story on the back burner for a while now because of this first paragraph. It was good, and yet didn’t work at the same time. So, like the wise man once said, kill your darlings. I will probably rework the opening or scrap it all together.
Hopefully there will be more good news to tell by the end of the week. In the meantime, keep cranking!
In my attempt to get this short story written, I’ve already promised myself (and you, my faithful reader) an outline of the story. After long straining, I have one, of sorts. But, there just seemed to be something missing. The outline was boring in a way. I had no reason to believe that these things would happen to my main character.
That was when I realized I had been going at it the wrong way entirely. I usually start a story with a Neat Idea, if you know what I mean. For this particular story, the Neat Idea was a mining asteroid. I began to think about what kind of story I could make on an asteroid that was being mined for materials. Pretty soon I had a couple of characters and an attention-grabbing opening scene. And that was it. There was no story to go with it. Fizzle.
That’s why it’s been in my ToDo box for all these years. Years! When I put together my Project List, this story went onto it, and now I am finally giving it some attention.
Back to present. After knocking together my paltry outline, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the main character. Why was he on the asteroid? I started to write a character profile for him, fleshing out what had happened to him in the recent past, and what pushed him into such a desperate situation. I’m happy to say that I understand ol’ Les a lot better now. I can now work on the other three characters’ profiles, which should give me some more crucial insight into motivations and personality. Needless to say, only a fraction of this material will go into the story. But, it’s not often that a character springs fully formed from my forehead. I should spend more time getting to know these people, and then the story will come out.
This might just work for me for other Neat Ideas I have. If I can get the character motivations worked out, then maybe it will become more obvious how they fit into my Neat Idea and from that a plot just. might. happen.