Showing posts with label outlines. Show all posts
Showing posts with label outlines. Show all posts

20 November 2017

Plotters and Pantsers


by Steve Liskow

Several years ago, I sat on a panel with three other writers and one of the patrons asked if we outlined or not. I said "yes," and it set off a debate that filled the rest of the evening and did little except confuse the poor woman who asked the question in the first place.

Saturday, I conducted a workshop on plotting and the same issue held the center stage for most of the afternoon. I think it's an important question, but there's not one right answer. Writing is a personal action tied to your own rhythms, thought process and voice. About half the writers I admire do outline and an equal number don't. Both approaches have advantages.

Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen don't outline. Gerritsen writes (or used to write) her first drafts in fountain pen in a notebook over the course of about seven months and revised for the rest of the year. Lehane used to write longhand on legal pads and type his work into the computer at the end of the day. He said that if he hit writer's block (a topic for another day), it meant he'd made a wrong choice somewhere and he had to re-read everything to find it. He would make all the necessary changes from that point on and continue. I don't know if his process has changed now that he also works in television.

Robert Crais got his start in television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and others. He says he still pins index cards with ideas on a cork board in his office and sorts them until he knows where he's going. Maybe having to write quickly and know the good guys will survive at the end makes that necessary. Mark Twain didn't outline but Charles Dickens did.

When I started writing (without an outline), I produced nearly 300 pages of a first novel over the course of about a year and a half. Then I got lost. I went back and discovered I had over 125 characters, many appearing only once, and lots of dialogue that went nowhere. I scrapped about 90% of what I'd written because it was all tangents and false starts. What was left looked sort of like an outline, and I've used a refined version of that approach ever since.

My thought process is far from linear (my friends prefer to call it "delusional") so plotting is hard for me. I also tend to use several point of view characters to help with pacing and to keep information away from certain people. Outlines help me keep track of who knows what. It also helps me find recurring images or themes to use along the way. I usually have a general idea of the ending, but the outline helps me figure out how to get there. It's sort of like MapQuest with a few wrong turns.

My outline is closer to a story-board, a list of scenes that name the POV character, the setting and the important action or change that takes place in that scene, all in three to five typed lines. I like to have about fifty scenes in what seems to be the right order before I write the first real text, but I never have them right. I add scenes, delete others, and move many around to get the pacing right and strengthen the cause and effect connections. That list is both my outline and my first draft. By the time I finish the first full prose version of the story, I've revised that list at least a dozen times. I think my record is 27. By the time I have the list and the completed first typed text, most of my plotting is done. Everything after it is revision.

That revision often involves going back and adding false leads or red herrings to make the ending a surprise. Occasionally, I find a more surprising ending along the way. Chris Knopf (I don't think he outlines) once told me that he writes with several possible endings in mind. When he decides which one will pack the most punch, he goes back and changes the details that lead elsewhere. I suspect other writers do that, too. I assigned Huckleberry Finn in my American lit classes for decades, and I still maintain that Twain added the scene with the dead man in the floating house (chapter 9) when he realized that Pap was an unresolved problem at the end.

People who don't outline have a sense of pacing and probably know their characters well enough (maybe in a series?) to understand where they will go and what they will do next. And, again, there's always revision. At that plotting workshop last week, I cited Jack Bickham's book Scene & Structure
with his explanation of scene and sequel. The sequel is a reflection on what has happened and what to do next. It helps with pacing and it gives pantsers a place to figure out where they will go next. They can even delete the passage later if they want to.

If you outline and it locks you up, toss it away and try writing your first scene. That will show you what your second scene should be. That will give you your third scene, and so on.

If you write from the seat of your pants and keep getting stuck, try an outline. My scene list is usually about six pages long and takes me anywhere from two to six weeks to write. Not only does it give me the action, it shows me what research I might have to do. Maybe that's another topic for a rainy day.

Remember, the only wrong way to write is not writing.

25 May 2016

String Too Short To Save


David Edgerley Gates

The phrase in the title above comes from a book by Donald Hall, a New England writer. The way I remember his telling the story, he was going through his late grandmother's effects, and in one of the kitchen drawers he found a small box she'd labeled String Too Short To Be Saved.

Writers collect a lot of string too short to save. Turns of phrase, or odd usage, esoteric jargon, peculiar job titles, vocabulary notes, code words and covernames. I still tear stuff out of the newspaper. For example, a passing reference to a CIA black site in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit - in the Baltimore SUN, this past Friday. I used to have boxes and boxes of old clippings, some of which I tried to organize, chronology, subject matter, at least some context or frame of reference, but I had to give up. I couldn't remember why I'd cut half of it out.

Books are different. You usually remember why you bought them. Then again, you can't always nail down exactly where you stubbed your toe on something. Omar Bradley came down with a bad cold, in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge. Homely little detail, or maybe more than that, if it clouded his judgement. But where did I see it? Must have been Antony Beevor's recent Ardennes book. I'm sure of it. I'm scouring the pages, and drawing a blank. Not a good sign, if you want to keep your facts straight.

Something sparks a train of thought. Maybe it's not a direct association, maybe it's at right angles, and the process isn't necessarily linear. As the circuits open, you move further away from your start point, and you might not be able to retrace your steps. You lose the trail of bread crumbs. Somewhere in these thickets of mixed metaphor, that original spark that switched on your lights falls by the wayside, or loses its significance. This works both forward and back, or doesn't in fact work at all. You unravel the train of thought, but not all the way back to Point A, or perhaps you happen on Point A in a different context, and you can no longer spin out the fabulous consequences. Your synapses are damp squibs.

This is perhaps related to the Ideas-versus-Execution algorithm ("Ideas are easy, execution is hard"), in the sense that there's a lot of sweat equity involved, or you might say inspiration chances to visit when you've been working for it, when you're in the zone. I was thinking more along the lines of the ethereal, as opposed to Applied Research - not solving an immediate and practical problem, but released from orbit. Whole narratives can be imagined, and with absolute clarity. Whether they ever get written or not is another story, but it wouldn't be from failure of nerve.

We're always open to accident. I don't outline, as it happens, I'm a pantser, but writers who work from outlines are just as ready to slip the leash. One habit I do have is coming up with a title, first. It helps me shape or define or feel my way into the story. I don't get working without the title, funny as that might seem, when I'm often in the dark about where the story's going or how to get there, or even what it's about. I don't work from a concept, and very rarely from the end backwards (as Conan Doyle admitted he did), but somehow, being able to give the unformed narrative a name makes it cohere for me.

Many people, and not just writers, used to keep what was called a Commonplace Book, not a diary or a journal, but a place to jot down random things that struck your fancy, like a quotation that caught your attention, or a fragment of overheard dialogue, or something otherwise borrowed. It was a kind of yard sale.

The moral is to always write stuff down. You might not remember why, or whether you had an immediate use for it, but taking note of it lodges it in your mind, and maybe some while later, when you turn it to the light, it reminds you why you bent down to pick it up.

16 December 2013

I, A, B, II, A, (1) (2) (a),(b) B


by Fran Rizer


If you've heard this before, and some of you have, now's the time to go for another cup of coffee. Please come back with it because before this ends I'm going to tell you how and why I used an outline for the first time when writing a book.

Last year, my grandson's language arts teacher told the class, "All writers plan their works with graphic organizers or outlines."

Aeden's hand shot up and he responded, "Not all of them."

"Yes, real writers do."

"But my G-Mama doesn't."

To shorten this story, the class wound up Googling me to satisfy the teacher that Aeden's grandmother really does write professionally.  
Grandson is now
a teenager.

Aeden insisted that I don't use organizers and outlines, but the teacher still made the students all use the graphic organizer sheet she'd printed.

My classroom days are over, and I agree some of the forms used in classes no doubt help develop better student writers.  Some of them address plot; some, characterization; some, setting; some, literary devices; some, other topics ad nauseam.  



Frequently the forms are cute and most kids like cute much better than the old outline form with its capital letters, lower case letters, Roman and Arabic numerals that was used when I was in elementary school. 

In my personal opinion, a lot of what's being used is too restrictive, even for students. Aeden's accelerated LA instructor this year sometimes uses forms requiring the writers to use a metaphor in the first paragraph, onomatopoeia in the second, direct quotations in the third, and on and on and on.

So where am I headed with all this?  I haven't used an outline or, heaven forbid, a mimeographed graphic organizer sheet since I was a kid... until this year!


I started the first Callie book with a nursery rhyme, stuck a casket in it, and produced a title.  (A Tisket, a Tasket, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET)  I then thought of an ending. I wanted to have the protagonist wind up locked in a casket, and I actually wrote the climatic chapter first.  After that, it was easy to start from the beginning and write until I reached the ending.

That pattern worked for the next four books, but the sixth required me to actually have a plan, an outline of sorts.

This time, the idea wasn't a nursery rhyme, but a song--"The Twelve Days of Christmas."  The full title naturally was On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A CASKET UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE.  I wanted to relate it to the song, so I Googled and printed out the traditional words. That led to wanting to sing it, so my sons and grandson began making up lines that fit the melody but were related to mystery or crime or the South.  I decided to use them as chapter headings.  We came up with twelve presents to use. Here they are:

Everyone knows the pattern.  It begins with the first verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
A corpse under the Christmas tree.
The second verse is:
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
Each additional verse adds a new present and then repeats all the previous gifts.  At the end, it goes like this:
 On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Twelve eggs a’nogging
 Eleven axes grinding,
        Ten turkeys trotting,
        Nine guns a’smoking,
        Eight collards cooking,
        Seven doggies howling,
        Six tongues a’wagging,
        Five stolen rings,
        Four falling flakes,
        Three red wreaths,
        Two broken hearts,
        And a corpse under the Christmas tree                                                     
I had an outline--not with all those letters and numbers, but a plan. I decided each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages to make twelve chapters add up to novel length. Later I added recipes for my friends who laugh at recipes and knitting patterns in cozies and also because my agent likes for the Callie books to run between 80,000 and 85,000 words.

Next task:  Develop an overall plot using chapters appropriate to their titles.  I confess it took some thought, but I managed it and made one-line notes for each chapter. Then I wrote A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree.  I can now say I've written a book essentially from an outline.

Currently I'm not working on a Callie, and I've reverted back to my favorite kind of writing.  I call it "falling into the page."  Stephen King describes it this way:



Until we meet again, take care of ...you!