Saturday, 20 February 2010

Outline or not?

Leading on from the last post about plotting software, I've been thinking about the whole issue of outlining.
I've seen this topic discussed on writers' boards many times over the years and what I find most interesting is how my own viewpoint has shifted over that time. All the How To books recommend an outline before you start a book. At the opposite extreme is the NaNoWriMo philosophy of No Plot, No Problem.

I first discovered Nano nearly four years ago and after years of planning but never getting down to writing it was a revelation to find that just sitting down every day and letting the words come out could work. It was exhilarating and fun and I was a convert. But the problems came later; revising a hastily written book is a huge task. And if you're writing a mystery the threads of the story need to be so carefully sown in you can't do it justice with such a helter-skelter approach.
With my now finished novel I faced a huge rewrite last year. It wasn't just a tweak, it was root and branch pruning. The plot was full of holes, some scenes didn't go anywhere and the characters were unbelievable. I had to go back to the drawing board and take the whole thing to pieces, discard the dead wood and write a lot of new material. It was hard work, and I couldn't help feeling that I could have written a much stronger story in the first place if I'd gone through the painful planning process before I'd written anything at all.

So I learned the hard way that planning matters.

Maybe it's the way my brain works. When I start a project it's all over the place, picturing scenes, contriving plot twists, conjuring characters. The plot refuses to be pinned down. Just when I think I know what a character is about, I have another brilliant idea to make him something else. I wrestle with that slimy octopus until it drives me near demented. I write myself into corners, waste time on scenes that go nowhere, get terminally frustrated.

The second act is the biggest problem. I can usually get a clear sense of Act 1, the set up for the story. That's easy. Then there's Act 3 - the big finish. Not as easy. Strange as it sounds, that's even harder to pin down. I keep wanting to change the ending; keep wanting to be surprised by my own story; keep writing like a reader, not a writer.

But Act 2 is toughest because it has no clear landmark in my head. I end up having the characters wander about for a while, maybe have a few twists and turns to keep things interesting, but generally I'm lost. And with a mystery you can't afford to be lost. You have to know exactly where you're going or it shows.

So that's why I'm a convert to outlining. I'm giving up on the thrills of discovery in favour of the thrills of mastery. If I already know what the scene is about I can concentrate on the writing, and hopefully that will make the whole process more efficient and satisfying. That's the plan, anyway. Watch This Space.

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