by John M. Floyd
I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the process of writing. Everyone seems to have different ways of getting ideas, describing settings, using dialogue, developing characters and plots, even rewriting and marketing.
Last week at this blog, Rob Lopresti posted what I thought was a fascinating column about the way he constructs a short story. He first writes the parts that are the most important and enjoyable (to him), and fills in the other parts later. I also read with interest the comment by our new colleague Terence Faherty, which mentioned his preference for outlining. And although I'd never thought about it before, I realized then that I use a combination of those two techniques. I always do an outline and I also always write my favorite parts first--the opening and the ending, usually, and a few scenes in the middle--and, as Rob said, build a bridge between the islands. Rob and Terry both turn out great stories, so I feel I'm doing at least a few things right. (I also like to use lists similar to those that R.T. Lawton talked about in his column yesterday--devious minds do indeed think alike.)
The question of whether to outline or to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants has always been interesting to me both as a writer and a teacher. In my fiction-writing courses my students are usually divided equally, on that subject. Some are outliners and some are freewheelers, and I never ever try to steer them away from their chosen path--mainly because I don't think it's chosen at all; I think our brains are just wired either one way or the other. Some folks need to begin with a blank slate and let their creativity run wild, and others need to have that preconceived structure firmly in mind before they start writing.
I've always said, at this blog and at Criminal Brief, that I'm an outliner. Not because I want to be--I actually admire those who can start from scratch and see their story develop as they go, never knowing what's around the next corner. I'm an outliner only because I wouldn't be able to do it any other way.
I often hear writer friends say they outline their novels but not their short stories, because the stories are, well, short. I maintain that if you're an outliner you're an outliner, period. The difference is, the outline for a novel is almost always written out, whereas the outline for a short story might be solely in your head. My short stories are always outlined that way--I map out the plot in my mind, all the way through to the ending, for several days or even several weeks before I begin writing. The plot might change as the actual writing is done, and usually does, but that unwritten layout of the story is always in place beforehand. It's just the way I have to do it.
Unplugging the GPS
As an outliner and primarily a "genre" writer, I was surprised to learn that many of my favorite genre authors (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and others) have stated that they never outline their work before they start writing. King has said he enjoys not knowing what will happen before it flows from his pen or keyboard, and Leonard has said the same. I respect their views, but I suspect that they do in fact outline to some degree. After writing so many successful novels and stories, I imagine they have a pretty good idea of what the storyline will be and how it will flow, when they start out. After a while, that kind of thing becomes second nature. If you've hiked the same woods over and over for many years you probably don't need a map anymore, and--as I believe Loren Estleman once said--if you've built a thousand houses, number 1001 can probably be finished without your having to rely on a blueprint.
Authors can sometimes go to extremes as well, where outlining is concerned. I once heard a famous writer say his novel outlines sometimes run two hundred pages or more. To me, that doesn't sound like an outline at all; it sounds like a first draft. And the late Robert B. Parker said he liked to compromise, and do a pseudo-outline, maybe of certain parts of the novel. Whatever the case, I'm a believer in doing what works for the individual writer, however different and/or crazy that might be. Forgive the cliche, but if it ain't broke don't fix it.
Holding the course
A quick word about one of the biggest criticisms of outlining. Many think that once a writer knows what happens in his story, his interest in the story flies right out the window, and he loses the incentive to keep writing it. I don't feel that way. Knowing my ending ahead of time ensures that I won't put anything in the story that doesn't point toward that ending. I'm also one of those odd folks who truly enjoy the process of rewriting and polishing a story, so it doesn't bother me to put up the framework first and then hammer merrily away at a half-finished structure.
Besides, I didn't major in writing in college. I majored in engineering. How could I not want to plan my stories out beforehand?
This has been asked before, but now that we have new SleuthSayers in the fold, and hopefully new readers as well, I'll ask it again: if you're a writer, are you an outliner or a blank-pager? And why do you like your side of that fence?
Either way, I hope you write a zillion stories and sell every one.