I’ve hated the idea of using outlines for novels ever since I was a teenager. My reasoning was that, yes, you need to know where you’re going, but if you know too much, it’s not interesting to write, and you are too bound by what you’ve written in the outline. I think also that I came to novels by an organic process of writing longer and longer stories, and it felt like to maintain an organic, natural writing method I should continue to leap off into the unknown.
Well, ironically enough–and Jay and I have had a laugh about this–just as Mr. Lake is experiencing his New Model process, which is about being more layered, more intuitive, and slower in the writing, I’m now going in the opposite direction, mostly because my relationship with the dread outline is changing. Because of the Predator novel.
I’ve now written about thirty thousand words of the rough draft, some of it still in longhand, and I’ve been working from an outline the whole time. It’s a very crude outline, in that I took the description in the synopsis and slotted it into a series of chapters, which are alternating points-of-view of four characters, with the Predator point-of-view as the wildcard, popping up whenever it makes sense.
The first parts of the outline and the last parts are the most detailed. Now that I’m reaching the beginning of the middle portion, I realize I have to flesh out the outline before I continue, because I’m getting good results writing this way. (Granted, I’m several drafts away from something I consider good, but we’re talking rough draft.)
I’ve thought about why I’m getting good results, and it has to do with the shift in emphasis. Yes, I know what I’m going to write about in a chapter ahead of time, so there’s less process of discovery in terms of what’s going to happen. However, I am finding I can give more thought to how and why things happen because I’ve already got this outline in place. In a sense, it is making me focus more in on scene, and how the scenes fit together, and in the process, it is changing my thoughts and theories about how to put a novel together.
Now, like Jay said about his process, I guess everybody else knows this already, but it’s a revelation for me. It’s a great relief and a great calming effect to know that I can extrapolate ahead of time on the macro level, fill in a certain level of detail, and still find the writing and the actual scene-writing vibrant and exciting.
It’s not like I didn’t think about all of the normal things one thinks about when writing a novel with my old process, but I do believe that if I can be more organized in advance, without losing that spark of inspiration and the layering effects I use, that there will be a great benefit to the work I do from here forward. I have no idea if it will be better work, but the process to get there will be different, and that will make things, ironically enough, more interesting for me. It may also make it easier for me to write, in that I may do even more organized thinking ahead about the writing instead of combining that process with a kind of stop-start on the actual drafting.
Oddly, this experience is making me think more about the character motivation on the micro level, which may be creating more character variation. Plotwise, it’s great inasmuch as I find myself thinking even more heavily than before about the character interactions, which is, after all, plot. I’m also finding dialogue easier.
Part of this might just be having come through the crucible of Shriek (still, I believe, the best thing I have written, and the most difficult to achieve). But I do think changing the process has a hand in it. (I have also very carefully studied the structure and effects created by George RR Martin in his brilliant Songs of Ice and Fire novels.)
As a result, I am averaging six to seven thousand words every morning that I have a chance to work on the Predator novel. This is three to four thousand words more than what I usually do when I’m on a roll. It’s not a matter of speed in getting words down on paper so much as I’m not taking the mental toll I usually do when I have to concentrate so heavily not just on why/how things are happening but actually what is going to happen. Because the main reason I stop writing at the end of a morning is not because I don’t know what to write about, but that I’m just too wrung out from the experience.
Granted, this is a Predator novel–it’s more straightforward, in many ways, than my other work. Granted also that this year is the first year where I’ve not had a day job to get in the way of heavy and deep thought about what I’m doing. But I think the lessons I’m learning here will give me more tools in the arsenal, allow me to diversify and allow me to grow as a writer. Especially as there are several things I want to do that require fewer words doing more work.