Thursday, February 12, 2009

Writing Outlines

I’m working on two outlines. Not the kind of outlines you write while the manuscript is in progress or after it’s complete and you want to send to agents and publishers. These are for me to wrap my mind around novels yet to be written. One is for a new novel that I’ve been making notes about since 2005 and just haven’t pulled the trigger on yet. The other is a proposed rewrite of “American Standard,” the last novel I workshopped with Ms. X
at Grub Street.

So why do this? Doesn’t this tamp the creative magic at time of inception? Meaning, don’t us writers just sit down to a blank monitor and just go to town? Maybe. Sometimes. But usually not. I’ll jump into a short story without a plan, but at this stage in the novel game, I won’t start a novel without a pretty clear idea of the story I want to tell and the characters I need to populate it with. I find that at this outline/pre-writing stage, I can get as creative as I want, coming up with any and all scenarios to try them on like shoes looking for the best fit or perfect Steve Madden knockoff. I won’t end up using all the ideas, scenes, or even the characters I plan ahead for. I also don’t let myself stay confined to the numbered steps of the outline after the novel-writing starts. If it turns out that Andrew was really abducted by little green men from Uranus, then maybe it’s best for the integrity of the story.

For the new novel, I’m creating characters and their backgrounds, figuring out where they are in life right now, where they want to go, and what’s holding them back. How they fit in to the story, or rather how the story evolves around them (I suppose that happens concurrently). One technique I picked up from my film school screenwriting teacher for getting to know your characters is to write a scene from each character’s perspective about the day before your story starts. What do your characters do when they’re at work? How do they treat their co-workers, and how are they treated back? Are they chronically late for work or compulsively early? Do they take two hour lunches on the clock or work through lunch? What do they do on Sunday mornings? Go to church or sleep in? Wake in a Dumpster or head out for brunch with high school buddies? These details you unearth are telling and prophetic. If they never make the final cut of your novel, they still inform it and help you to know your characters. When I’m done with the outlines, I will write these character portraits.

The second outline is for American Standard. Why an outline for a novel that I’ve already got in first draft form? Based on feedback from the workshop and from other readers, I’ve decided to scrap the characters as they currently stand, and approach them and the story from another angle. The main character is now younger, he’s not going through what could be considered a mid-life crisis. He’s no longer in love with his cousin (oy!), and he also makes more boneheaded moves which, this time around, he has to find his way out of for redemption’s sake, and hopefully the love of a good woman. This version has more of an arc. The main character starts off a decent guy, gets sucked down into a quagmire of moral ambiguity and questionable behavior. Hopefully by the end he’s made some strong decisions and comes around to fix what he done broke. Figure out what he really wants in life. It sounds mundane, but would it help if I mentioned that he’s a pornographer? Moral grey areas and ambiguity abound. See, rise and fall and rise. Hopefully.

Two outlines. Two nascent novels. Let the games begin.


Liz's Mom said...

If the story is about morality, that will be interesting. It sounds as if you will be exploring morality from many angles. Good idea. I am not familiar with the daily lives of many pornographers, so it will all be new to me.

Dell Smith said...

Yes, well, just for the record, the daily lives of pornographers is also new to me.

Whether anybody else will be interested remains to be seen.

Robin said...

Hi Dell -- I really like the idea of telling your characters' stories from the day before the action of your novel starts. Most of my characters are too young to be in the workforce but they certainly have ongoing lives! Thanks for some wonderful suggestions.

Liz (made in lowell) said...

Wait, you're writing a new novel? I can be so clueless sometimes! I like the "day before the action starts" thing too, cool idea!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Truly knowing our charcters is essential in bringing them to life in our novels. I love creating characters and breathing life into them through my writing.

My major downfall in writing long, complex, romantic suspense is I don't plot out the story ahead of time. Ahhk. It's truly way too time consuming to do it mid-novel. I may learn to do it right one of these days...

Thanks for the plotting ideas!

Good luck creating and plotting both novels. :)

Dell Smith said...

Hi Liz, I haven't really started writing a new novel yet. Not quite ready. I still have some prep to do.
Hi Cindy. Yeah, writing an outline ahead of time does save you some time down the line, but it's not for everybody. Some writers think it takes away from creative spontenaity. So it really depends. I do know that Ms. X, who is writing a novel under a deadline, a novel she has already sold, had to really do a lot of prep work, including not just an outline as I talked about but also figure out the structure to make sure everything would work. This to cut down on the time spent on revision.