Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Newbie Question #7

7. How do you set up your books? Do you outline them first or do you have an idea and just go with it?

That question has changed for me as my career has advanced, and, in some rare cases, on a book by book basis. So my initial answer is, "Yes. Both. All. None."

Before I go into an explanation of that, I will tell you that I'm a big fan of "pre-thinking," however you might choose to do that. It's my anecdotal experience that successful writers "pre-think" on some level. For some, this means a detailed synopsis/outline. I know of another writer who writes out idea trees/notes on butcher paper stuck to his walls. I've been to workshops that promote an organic brainstorming system.

I think all these methods have varying degrees of usefulness for me. There are some I personally resist: note cards (I lose them), strict outlines (I abandon them with glee.) BUT, just because they don't work for me, doesn't mean they won't work for you.

However you choose to organize your thoughts, I think it's incredibly helpful (particularly for a new writer) to have a pretty good idea of where your story is going before you write it. A dear friend and mentor, Joan Vinge likens her process to a road trip. She says she might not even know who is coming with her (characters), but she's planning to go from New York to California (just to stretch the metaphor a bit.) All sorts of unexpected things might happen along the way, but as long as she keeps her destination in mind, she can keep going forward. The story may end before they get to their metaphorical California, but the idea of going there has kept the story on track. For someone like me who is very organic in my thinking and process, I loved this idea because it freed me from the restriction of a rigid outline, but allowed me to consider the bones of my story and where I wanted to go with it BEFORE I STARTED.

I know, too, that a big concern for a lot of new writers is the idea of writing themselves into a corner. First of all, it has always been my contention there is no corner so tight that an author can't break a wall to get their characters out... but I also understand that the root of the fear is based on worrying that you'll get stalled because you don't know where to go with a certain plot line. "Pre-thinking" helps. If you have a note card, note book, scribbles, a diagram, an outline to go back and refer to, you less likely to get stuck.

Anything that keeps the story moving and the writer writing is a good, good thing.

But, back to your original question. These days I outline. Most of the books I write are sold on proposal. The proposal is a detailed (usually for me about 12 pages) synopsis that tells the beginning, middle and end and hits the emotional highlights for the main characters. What's left out is the subplots (and the surprises, because, with me, there are always some.)

However, I'm also writing a novel for a small press right now where, as I told my writer friend Naomi Kritzer, I'm writing without a net. I have no idea where the story is going.... and it's working. It's the kind of novel, however, that I have to mentally work overtime on. Literally. I dream about it. When I'm working out, ideas hit me. It's a very different (and much messier) process than I've gotten used to. But it tells me something, too. The just running with the idea method works for me for this book. So it might work for you.

I will leave you with this thought, though. I often encourage my students to try some method of pre-thinking because, let's face it, new writers have a lot of challenges to face. These questions you ask are just the surface of them. So, if you have an ace up your sleeve of a solid storyline that you know has a beginning, middle, and end, that's one less thing to worry about, you know?

Just a thought, Mr. Fox.

No comments: