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
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.
20 November 2017
20 August 2016
by John Floyd
by Elizabeth Zelvin
NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as a guest blogger. Liz is, she says, a semi-dormant SleuthSayer ("Like writers in general, we never retire"), and she's the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series: five novels and five stories published, plus two additional stories accepted for publication. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award. Other publications include two historical novels, two books of poetry, an album of original songs, and a book on gender and addictions. Liz lives in New York City and can be found online at http://elizabethzelvin.com, on Facebook at http://elizabethzelvin.com and on Amazon. Good to have you here, Liz!--John Floyd
Having completed the first draft of a new short story and feeling mighty good about it, I got to thinking about my personal creative process, with which I've become fairly well acquainted over the years. I call myself an into-the-mist writer, because when I sit down to tell a story--we're talking fiction here, whether long or short--I can see only a little way ahead of me. I have to peer into the dimness to see my way, and what comes beyond the limited compass of my headlights is a mystery. In fact, it's an act of faith to trust that there's something there, and believe me, I have many moments of doubt.
The image that comes to me when I say the words "into the mist" is a drive I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy summer morning. My husband was with me, but he is a New Yorker born and bred who came to cars late in life, and at the time, I was still the family's only driver. There was supposed to be a scenic view of mountains off to the side, but we literally saw only the gray wedge in our low beams, which revealed swirls of mist, a hint of the winding road, and once a doe escorting a couple of fawns.
That's what writing the first draft of a story or a novel is like for me. I can see a glimpse of where I need to go next. I have a few ideas--like notes in a guide book--of features that may show up along the way ahead. But I'm never sure that I'll get where I'm supposed to be until I get there. When I do, there's no mistaking it. It's my destination, all right. I heave a big sigh of relief--and buckle down to the much easier business of killing my darlings and cleaning up the mess.
I've tried to write the other way: planning in advance, laying it all out neatly. It doesn't work. My creative process starts with my characters talking in my head. (Well, my husband says it starts with "I can't"--but after that.) Anyhow, I can't plan the jabber of those unruly characters. I'm not in the driver's seat. Bruce's wisecracks and Barbara's enthusiasm are a gift from the muse or whatever you want to call it. It happens, and it's the best feeling in the world. All I can do is make a beeline for my laptop or my Post-its or the voice recorder on my iPhone, whatever's handy, and start writing down what they say.
Once my characters start talking to each other, their conversation shapes the course of the narrative, even if I know in a general way where the story is going to end up. My series characters all have strong personalities, and it doesn't take much for them to start talking and acting exactly like themselves. The secondary characters in a particular story spring up as needed. They become my suspects and witnesses and law enforcement folks with their own personalities and ways of reacting to the situations I put them in and the characters they meet. They only come to life because I don't try to stuff them into some preset mold.
One of my favorite true stories from my historical novel about Columbus's voyage in 1493 is how one of the Spanish priests who accompanied the expedition went around Hispaniola collecting what he called folktales from the Taino, the indigenous people. When he got back to Spain, he published a collection of these tales. Like most authors, he was very proud of his book. These simple people have such charming folktales, he said. What a pity that they have no religion! The point, of course, is that the Taino were telling him about their religion all along.
That's kind of the way I feel when writers whose creative process involves outlining call writers like me "pantsers," a term that I consider demeaning. Who are they to dismiss my creative process as "flying by the seat of my pants"? It's my process, and believe me, there are no pants involved--no recklessness or lack of thought, merely an equally valid and effective way of summoning creativity, however different from theirs. So don't call me a pantser!