Saturday, 7 June 2014

Outlining is My Elephant in the Room

While still beavering away at current w-i-p 'The Renegades' - with a determination so grim I am now 100-per-cent positive I'm actually gonna finish this thing (it might take me until I'm old and grey, but dammit I am gonna finish it...) - my brain, for some reason, decided to do a time-jump into the future. And as a result, presented me with a whole new set of things to worry about. Cheers for that, Brain!

The Renegades is actually planned as Book One in a trilogy. I've learned so many things about how to write a novel from writing this one, that I'm anticipating the process for writing books two and three to be a little quicker than the snail's pace I'm currently achieving. Once I get to the stage where I'm ready to start submitting Book One to agents and publishers, I'm obviously going to have to already be working on Books Two and Three if I don't want to look like an all-mouth-and-no-trousers kind of writer. Which means I need to be at least thinking about the storyline for Book Two...  oooh, right about now.

Because if an agent or publisher should like The Renegades enough to actually want to do something with it (other than bin it or burn it on a ritual pyre of Novels That Should Never See The Light Of Day, obviously) I can't wiffle about taking an eternity to write the two follow-ups. I need to work smarter - and that means having proper outlines in place from the start. All the most respected authors say you must have an outline for your novel (the only exception I can think of  is Stephen King, but then he's a writing superhero from the planet Writeon. I, on the other hand, am me.) So I realised I was going to have to get serious about the process too.

I did the research. I read books about outlining your novel; detailed books that turned it almost into a science. They were a revelation, suggesting techniques and procedures I'd never even dreamed of before. "A-haaa" I thought. "So that's how the professionals do it - jeez, no wonder my writing process has been so disorganised all this time!" I absorbed all the things about Plot Points; Key Points, Mid Points, Pinch Points... I dunno, Decimal Points as well probably. I made up special sheets with all the correct headings on them, in order to construct the most mathematically-perfect outline from beginning to end. And then I sat down in front of them, notebook and a gazillion different coloured pens at the ready (you need them to categorise your thoughts between character, action, setting, dialogue etc., apparently) and got ready to kick the plot-shaped ass of The Renegades Book Two...

...And monumentally failed to get anything useful done.

Problem is, the kind of Plot Outlining these books are championing, by their very nature, require your brain to think in a very structured, procedural way. Clearly they've never met my brain, which doesn't do that.

(If yours does, I can highly recommend Rock Your Plot: A Simple Guide to Plotting Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys For Writing an Outstanding Story and The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot. I'm sure they'll work like a dream for those of you whose brains are compatible. I did learn incredibly useful things about story structure, pacing and arcs from them.)

If the process of plotting a story for a novel could be compared to a car journey, this is how my brain works. It has a big picture of the landscape it's going to be travelling through - but it's more like a Google Earth photo rather than an actual road map with highways and placenames marked on it. It sure as heck doesn't have a satnav/GPS. It doesn't set out with a clear idea of where it wants to end up or look at the map to work out the towns and cities it needs to go through to get there. Instead it sets out with no clear idea about a final destination, but notices there's a big blue bit that might be a lake over in that part of the Google photo, and a yellowy patch that might be a desert or a beach or something... so maybe heading north-east-ish might be a good start. And, rather than reading the map to look up the names of places of interest in advance, it just pootles on its merry way using only the Google photo as a guide, seeing where the road takes it and making a note of anything that looks cool as it drives through, with a view to plotting it on the journey it'll take the next time through (i.e. in my case, Draft Two.)

And that's it. An approach about as structured as a Jackson Pollock painting, if I'm honest. And definitely not suited to the kind of meticulous plot-point-by-plot-point-breakdown trumpeted in the books I read. If the methods prescribed in 'the books' truly is the only way to outline a novel in advance of writing that first draft, I'm going to fail every single time. I'd even put money on it.

And then I revisited the Index Cards System of outlining a novel.

I'd read about it before, but didn't think much of it because, at the time I read it and the way it was presented, it looked to me like it was just a variation on the methods described in the books I've just read; deciding on your diversions and pit stops was a bit more flexible, but for it to work you'd still need to know in advance where your story started from, which direction you were going to travel in and where you planned to end up.

But then I read about how the author Michael Crichton uses the index card method to outline his stories. Rather than try to break down the skeleton of a story that already half-exists, into index cards that he can then swap around to 'fit' that structure, he instead spends a good few weeks carrying blank index cards around with him wherever he goes. If he gets a great idea for the story in the course of his day - whether it's for a snippet of dialogue that reveals a character's motivation, an unexpected twist, or even just a fantastic moment that just has to happen at some point in the tale - he scribbles it down onto a blank card... and then stuffs it in an envelope. And leaves it there, to marinate.

Over time, he scribbles on more cards and puts them in the envelope, until it's bulging with cards full of these little 'magic moments.' Only then does he tip them out and look at them all - and that's the moment he starts to move them around into something resembling a story outline.

For him, the plotting process is not looking at a road map, tracing a route from a to b to c and then writing an  index card for every place of interest that route takes him through. For him, it's more like finding all the pieces he needs to complete a jigsaw; he has to gather millions of them from everywhere and anywhere first, and then lay them all out in front of him to decide which of them belong in the jigsaw and where they should go.

And that, I've come to realise, is how my brain works too. I already have ideas for killer scenes and plot twists for Book Two - I just don't know where the heck they should occur in the story. So I'm going to give Michael Crichton's method a whirl; at the very least it's something I can do while I'm still writing Book One. In the past couple of days I've already added a small handful of cards, so it seems to be going well so far.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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