Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Change of Tack.

Remember how I waxed lyrical about my Driving Without Headlights approach to writing – the method of not using outlines that worked so well with The Weight of Souls? Well, 22,000 words and several months later, I’ve come to the conclusion that I got lucky on that occasion, and that writing without an outline is more often than not a recipe for wasting time.

I started Mapmaker’s Apprentice with a solid idea of its beginning and end, and a burning ambition to write 1000 words per day until I’d come up with an 80,000 word initial draft. Things started off well, with the first chapter looking pretty good and the whole thing flowing well. But, by the time I reached the 20,000 word mark, the whole thing had become a veritable bird’s-nest of oddly-placed plot-points, disjointed conversation and wobbly characters. If I squinted down the road hard enough, I could clearly see a total re-write sitting in a deck-chair in the distance, waving at me and grinning.

That's not to say everything I've written has been a complete waste of time, or would have been if I had kept at it. By the end, I’m sure I would have had little bits and pieces that I could have tinkered with, ideas that came from nowhere as I bravely battled on. But now I think I can achieve the same thing in less than half the time and with less than half the effort, simply by spending some time working on a constructive outline before I begin writing.

*Sigh*. I never thought I’d say that. Many would say it’s glaringly obvious that writing with an outline is better than travelling blind. But I was so keen to try an exciting new method, and so convinced it would pay dividends, that I pressed on regardless. Now I know better.

Part of the problem has been a misunderstanding of how an ‘outline’ type approach should work. I had pictured a series of bullet points – something along the lines of “Fred walks into bar. Fred gets into firefight with Sheriff Dwayne. Fred shoots Sheriff Dwayne. Fred spits in spittoon as he ambles out.” Every time I’ve used this kind of thing, it’s been hopeless. It’s just too low-level, too detailed, and it fails to take into consideration the way characters have a habit of bouncing off each other and the situations you put them in, often leading to them acting differently to your initial expectations(the scoundrels! Don't they understand who's boss?).

But now I've seen a new method that's kind of half way between a bullet-point outline and a blindly written first draft. I first saw it mentioned in a blog-post by my writing-friend, Jonathan Danz. The idea is that, rather than churn out a blow by blow outline of the flow of action, the author should start by summarising the book in 15 or so pages, a summary that will contain the main themes of the book as well as the ways in which the characters develop from beginning to end. It’s almost like writing that first draft, but in micro-form, therefore saving a lot of time and avoiding a lot of unnecessary and certain to be changed detail. This summary then serves as a high-level roadmap, allowing detail to be fleshed out with a clear idea of the underlying drivers of action.

I saw something similar in a page by Garth Nix, where he explains his process for writing a novel. He describes the first stage as a kind of gestation of ideas, a time of thinking and musing on the story. From this, he writes a chapter by chapter outline of the book, with each chapter summarised in a few sentences. Again, this is not a blow by blow detail of what happens, but a condensation of the main events and themes of each chapter. Armed with this, he moves to the next stage - the long, hard slog of writing.

Garth mentions that he fully expects to depart from this outline, but that having it gives him a sense of security, a sense that he knows where he wants to go. I can certainly relate to that need for security. It's terrifying to launch into a book without really knowing what happens, doubly so when the manuscript happens to be contracted. What if you never do work it out? What if the ideas never come together in a coherent way, and all you end up with is mush? Starting with an outline means you know (or, perhaps, are fairly sure) that's not going to happen, and any deviations from the outline can only be because you've come up with something even better. Very good for your peace of mind.

So, feeling wiser and grayer, I’ve put down my 20,000 words of literary spaghetti, and picked up my moleskine notebook. I’m now working towards building an overall picture of what I want to happen in the book. So far, I know how I want each of the characters to develop over the course of the novel. I also know what information I want to reveal that pertains to the overall series. From this, I’ve managed to build a skeleton chapter outline, which I’m currently tinkering with as I think about characters and details. All being well, by the time I start writing again, I’ll know exactly where I’m going. I’m certain that, by the end of the process, I’ll have a much better product than I would have done with my no-headlights approach. Fingers crossed!


  1. I use a similar approach, and I'm using it work through the summary of Guillermo now. So far, I've avoide three plot issues and managed to stay on track. It's a time-saver for sure, and everyone has a slightly different approach to the outline, but I believe that everyone eventually finds a process that works for them!

  2. I like to write outlines that lead me at least halfway through the book - so long as I have some sense of how I want the book to end. By the time I reach the halfway point in my writing, my characters pick up the slack and tell me how they're going to reach the end. Don't abandon 'free form' writing entirely. After all, outlines are for writers who lack faith.

  3. Teresa - that's certainly my hope! I think the key is trying lots of different things until something fits.

    Cafe - The important thing is that you're never restricted by the outline you prepare beforehand. If your characters decided to up and go off in a different direction, you're no worse off than if they did that without an outline.

  4. Outlines are for writers who lack faith- haha! Good luck Peter. I'm gestating someideas right now, trying to figure out how to get to know my characters well enough that I'll know what kind of situations they'll get themselves into. I plan to try my hand at a loose outline, too.

  5. Hey, Peter. Thank you for the kind comment you left on my blog. I very much appreciate you taking the time to look at my humble work.

    The outline thing is very similar for making comics. I've drawn a few just for the sake of putting something on paper and later wished I hadn't wasted my time. I usually have to draft out an idea in several thumbnails before I'm ready to make a finished piece. Always comes out better that way.

    Keep up the hard work!

  6. DEZ - you're more than welcome! You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned not wanting to waste time. I find it so hard to get time to write these days that when I do I want to make sure the time is used in the best possible way. Thanks for stopping by.

    Kelly - I'm trying to gestate ideas too. I have a notebook full of squiggly lines and boxes with half-legible ideas scribbled inside. I'm confident something sensible will emerge (eventually) from the mess. Good luck with your own outline, too.