Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Order and Chaos

I used to outline. I really did.

This isn't going to be about me saying which I think is better. There is no better, there is only what works for you and what doesn't. You'll hear me say that a lot if you keep reading, so get used to it.

Way back when, when I just started to write my own, real stories in something potentially resembling the form of a novel -- or at least attempting such a thing -- I outlined the crap out of everything.

I remember, it was -- fade, dissolve, turn on the sepia tone -- way back in my very first years of middle school I started my first novel. Science fiction. Space aliens, the destruction of Earth, big spaceships, incredible technology allowing the manipulation of matter, energy and time in ways that would make Einstein and Heisenberg weep, sentence after sentence that went "I verbed!" complete with extraneously elaborate and unnecessarily gratuitous exclamation points. I had it all.

Where was I going with this? Anyway, I gave that book up as childish and juvenile around the time I turned twelve.

Then came my fantasy novel. Now I was that strange, messed-up, pre-pubescent writer who wanted to write a fantasy novel that had no fantasy in it whatsoever. You got that right. It had the medieval technology, the Chosen One, the never-ending quests, the Evil Overlords, the great big Epic Battles, the requisite Overworld Map, etc., etc. But no magic. Humans only. Final Destination. Wait. Scratch that last part. I outlined the hell out of it. I wrote 50,000 words and stopped, never getting anywhere further. I couldn't do my outline justice. If I did it would take forever. And the fact that I'd outlined everything beforehand just killed my interest in writing anymore since there was no thrill of surprise at what happened next.

Then came my eighth grade novel. My near-complete, two-chapters-from-finished, Completely-Ripped-Off-from-Umberto-Eco eighth grade novel. It was basically a long character sketch of myself with a plot completely stolen from Foucault's Pendulum. I didn't outline, but I plotted out the future chapters. Just one or two sentences. Even that became too much. I listened to my own plans too much. I didn't think of the characters. For all my navel-gazing, I was shallow as a Mexican Staring Frog.

So here's a writerly lesson: Don't Trust Yourself.

You are wrong. The characters are right. Listen to them. Listen only to them.

It doesn't matter whether you outline or not. Write real characters. I want to know what they do, not what you think they do. When I read a book, every action should seem like the only possible thing that character could have done. Make the last page the only possible outcome just because of who those characters are. Make them real and four-dimensional and step out of the page and greet me with a handshake or a punch in the face or an offer of a beer or gun to the gut, whatever they like. But you can't plan it yourself -- you can't make them do what you think they should do. Listen to them. The characters know better.

Am I sounding like I should be committed yet?

My first completed-and-as-of-yet-unpublished novel started with nothing more than a few sentences that grew and grew. They became scenes, disparate and unsure of themselves, but knowing they had somewhere to go. The characters took over their own arcs. I trusted them to guide me. I didn't know how everything would tie together. But it did, amazingly, and every twist and turn was a surprise.

I plot my short stories meticulously.

But the only way I've managed to finish a novel? What do I start with? An outline? Just an idea?


I begin with a sentence. And then another. And then another. And I want to believe that a story will coalesce if it is meant to.

I'm still not sure why I'm posting this. Oh well.

1 comment:

  1. Listen to your characters. 4 words, so much truth.

    I outline, but flexibly. My rule: If the characters and outline ever disagree, the characters win. Every. Time. They have yet to steer me wrong.