Thanks to my friends Graham Beattie and Lia Matera for this wonderful quote from Raymond Chandler which fits so well with my thoughts today:
“I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”
IF WRITERS ARE TELLING THE TRUTH about their process—always a risky bet—then a lot of us develop an outline before we begin to write, while an equal number eschew the restraint that an outline imposes and just wing it. (Can you tell I’ve always wanted to write a sentence containing ‘eschew’? The opportunities are less common than you might think.)
For years I was a dedicated camp follower of the wing it brigade. It felt more creative to just let things happen. I’m not such a devotee nowadays, but I still jump-start a new novel by writing a dramatic scene for my heroine without bothering with context. This isn’t necessarily the opening scene; it can eventually end up anywhere in the book. Sometimes, it doesn’t make the cut at all. But I develop the story and characters organically using that scene as a platform. And then I reverse engineer an outline to guide the rest of the novel.
This is a result of techniques honed during my master’s degree in writing and afterwards, teaching writing to others in a workshop setting. Writers throw challenges at each other as part of the learning process: “Invent a new god for Greek mythology. Two minutes” “Write a scene with your main character eating a meal alone. Five minutes.” “Describe a Christmas tree. Three minutes.”
Unfortunately, when applied to a novel this method tends to produce a series of unrelated scenes, character sketches and plot lines which then have to be linked into a coherent whole. No carefully-drawn outline survives the mishigas when the book can go off in any direction at any moment.
I’ve worked like this, (Chandler, too, apparently) but it’s not ideal for me. It was fun and challenging in its way, but it was a bit like doing a jig saw puzzle with the pieces turned over. I had the shape of the pieces as a guide but no idea where I was headed. The “picture” at the end was a surprise to the reader (a good thing) and to me (less so).
For a murder mystery (almost always a highly disciplined type of novel) I really need to work from some sort of outline. Sure I always have at least one corpse, which makes the dramatic center of the novel a sure thing. But it’s a good idea to know how it got that way and why and by whom before I get too far in. I can still incorporate unexpected characters, scenes and action I run into along the way.
It’s a bit like having a sculptor’s steel armature; when it’s rock steady I can be as carefree as I like throwing clay at it—the thing will stand up and hold together.