Thanks to Lyn Nichols for today’s title . . .
I hadn’t planned it this way, but this post serves as a nice follow-up to Chloe Neill’s excellent post yesterday.
I have recently started a new book, the second in my Weremyste Cycle, which will be published by Baen under my own name. And though I am now several chapters into the novel — close to 20,000 words — I have not yet completed an outline of the book.
All of you who have been reading my posts here at MW know that I am a dedicated planner, or at least have been in recent years. I have posted several times about the benefits of outlining a novel, of knowing where a story is going so that we can introduce themes, foreshadow plot points, plant the seeds of the twists and turns that will make our narratives capture the imaginations of our readers.
And yet, here I am writing without a complete outline. Now, let me be totally honest and say that I do have about two-thirds of the book mapped out in a loose way. So I have an idea of where the plot is going and I know in a rough sense what these early chapters need to accomplish. But . . .
This is hard for a dedicated planner like me to say, but the fact is different books demand different approaches and varying levels of planning. I have never outlined any books with as much dedication and detail as I have the Thieftaker books. And there’s a reason for that. The books are tied closely to historical events, and they have a strong mystery element. This means that my narrative timeline needs to follow a progression and pace that are dictated externally. And it means that I need to set up my clues and false leads to make the mystery work.
It’s not that the Weremyste books I’m writing now are uncomplicated, or that their pacing is less crucial to the plots. In fact, I have put in a different sort of “ticking clock” to replace the historical element of the Thieftaker books. But this series lends itself to a looser, more improvisational approach.
Why? For one thing, I’m writing the story in first person, and I find the first person point of view freeing. My lead character is forced to think on the fly, to face threats to his life from all directions and to create solutions in the moment. I’m not really sure that I would want to plan such a story with too much care. I want my writing to feel as much in the moment as my POV character’s actions and thoughts.
But, some might ask, don’t you always want that level of spontaneity? To some degree, yes. Here is the point, though: Each different book has it’s own set of narrative imperatives. Yes, we all want great characters, exciting story lines, fascinating and realistic settings. But each book also has some unique element that sets it apart, and that, by necessity, has to dictate our approach to the creative process. For the Thieftaker books, this narrative priority has been the precision of plotting, the interweaving of fictional story arc with historical events. That’s the big idea, to borrow a phrase from Edmund’s wonderful post last week.
In my epic fantasies the narrative imperatives were often tied to multistrand plot points or intensive worldbuilding, and those books also took a fair amount of planning.
With this new series, my narrative needs are tied much more closely to issues of character arc, of psychological fragility, of that “ticking clock” I mentioned earlier which adds an element of desperation to each novel. And in certain ways, this combination of story elements allows me, even encourages me, to be somewhat less precise in my planning and to trust just a bit more to that improvisational quality I mentioned before.
Again, I don’t want to overstate this: Despite Lyn’s wry title for this post, I am not really pantsing the novel. I have mapped out the early direction of the book, and I know in a general sense where the rest of it will be going. But I think that this experience is also forcing me to embrace a necessary corrective to some of my previous pronouncements on the importance of outlining. For some novels it really is quite crucial. And for others, as I am learning now, it’s less so. I will even admit that for still other books, outlining in any meaningful way could have a stultifying effect on the creative process. And after this experience I find myself wanting to write one of those novels.
The larger point, I suppose, is that creative process and creative output are inextricably linked. It’s not just a matter of the words on the page — the characters created, the worlds realized, the narratives woven. How we write influences what we write. Another example of this: While writing the Thieftaker books I have been listening to instrumental bluegrass and Celtic music. The Weremyste books are grittier, more modern, more urban in the most literal sense of the world, and I am finding that blues and jazz are my preferred accompaniment as I write these stories. Process, one might say, begets product, just as product shapes process. It is a synergistic relationship — I’m not sure I ever appreciated just how synergistic until I started this newest book.
And so now I put the questions to you. Have you found that outlining has worked well for some of your projects and less well (or not at all) for others? Can you think of other ways in which the content of your writing has dictated new approaches in your creative process? Let’s discuss this stuff.
Oh, and it’s been a while since my last MW post. I’ve enjoyed hearing from all of our guests and I’ve been gratified, as I know Faith and Misty have been, by the great response to this year’s posts. But it’s nice to be here again. I’ve missed you all.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com