Art vs Science

NaNoWriMo is now only four days away, and as I said last time, I’m using this annual event to get the first half of my third novel, Rad Bradbury: Empire State down. The required daily wordcount – 1667 words for every day in November – is actually around my usual writing rate anyway, so the added peer pressure from friends also doing Nano will provide a nice little impetus. I’ve spent about two months editing Dark Heart, so I’m expecting the jump back into writing to be a little rough.

As preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’ve done a complete chapter breakdown for Empire State. It has a target length of 100,000 words, and to break this into manageable chunks, I’ve assigned it 40 chapters of 2,500 words a piece. I’m a fan of slightly shorter chapters when reading anyway, and this sounds like a good amount.

I’ve been building the world of Empire State for quite some time in Voodoo Pad, which is a personal Wiki application, as the story is fairly complex and I needed to really understand some of the central concepts before I start writing it. The individual entries for people and places in Empire State blossomed into a chronology of events – essentially the beginning, middle and end, with linking material between. Once this list was down, I created a new project in Scrivener, made 40 chapter folders, then using the outliner I broke the chronology down even further into a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. So far, so good.

Filling in 40 individual chapter synopses is actually fairly hard work, even with a full event list to use, and at a couple of points I found myself creating a slightly less detailed linking scene to get characters from one point to another. This is fine for the outline, which is likely to change anyway, but this method reminded me of various conflicting pieces of advice I’ve been given about writing.

Story archaeology

Some authors think that outlining is just plain wrong. According to Stephen King, a story needs to be unearthed like a precious artefact from an archaeological dig. He’s just the guy kneeling in the dirt holding the brush. Another favourite author of mine has said that he writes stories because he wants to know what happens next – if you put it all down in outline, he knows how the story ends, so there is no point in writing it and all interest has evapourated.

The rationale behind this is easy to understand – if the characters and scenarios you create are essentially real in your mind, then the characters will behave how their personalities and habits make them behave, they’ll make their own decisions, and they’ll take the story where it naturally should go. Real life isn’t plotted, and if you’re good at creating fiction to the extent where the story can play out naturally in your mind, then all you need to do is transcribe what happens.

I’m not disagreeing with this recommendation. There’s nothing wrong with saying that outlines are bad. And an important thing to remember about writing is finding out what works for you and you alone. But critics might point out that Stephen King’s weakness lies in his endings. And I recently finished the latest book from another favourite author, and while it was an enjoyable page-turner, it seemed to be treading water most of the time. It wasn’t outlined, and I think it showed.

Story science

A lot of people say they want to write a book. Most people don’t, and of those that do, a large proportion give up at some point. I attended a writing panel at a convention a couple of years ago, and during the Q&A, one audience member stood up and said that he comes up with hundreds of great ideas all the time, but when he sits down to start writing, he always stops at about the third page as the plot fizzles out and he doesn’t know what to write next. There was a murmur of appreciation from the audience – clearly this happens to a lot of would-be writers.

The advice from the panel of established, published authors was two-fold. Firstly, an idea is not a story – a lot of people seem to get these two concepts confused. Take this random example: Jack wakes up to find his house a mess. Someone has broken in and stolen a priceless artefact. Turns out when Jack falls asleep he becomes a different person, his own arch-nemesis! Erm, well, I said it was random! But that’s an idea. And actually that’s not too bad – this is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two sides of Jack’s personality separated by the delta waves of sleep. But it’s not a story or a plot – you’ve got the concept, or even the elevator pitch. But sit down to write and as a new writer, chances are you might get stuck after a few pages.

So, secondly: write an outline. Outlining will help you out when you get stuck, especially if you’ve put yourself under some time pressure, like with NaNoWriMo. You might just have an idea (not a story). You might have a beginning, a middle, and an end (or one of the three). You might just have a list of three things that must happen in the story. But outlining will sew it all together and even if your story changes significantly as you write it, you’ve got the outline to fall back on when things get sticky.

You’re allowed to change the outline

There’s the important bit right there. I wonder if critics of outlining sometimes don’t realise this. The outline doesn’t need to be the ultimate breakdown of your story. If the characters are real in your mind, they’ll start to do their own thing, which is a surprise and a delight for the author. The plot may change. Things that seemed perfectly logical when outlined may be sitting at the bottom of a deep plot hole. An alternative, better idea/plot thread/event may come into your mind this time next week.

Which is fine. Change the outline. If things are starting to go very differently at the halfway point, re-outline the last half of the book. Or keep the original outline as it is, and use it as a touchstone if you want to keep track of what you thought should happen next as opposed to what will happen next. So for those who say the outline reveals the story and therefore takes away any point in writing it in the first place – that’s not necessarily so.

Routinizing a creative process

Another half-remember opinion from an established author pushed its way to the front of my mind as I divided my 100,000 word plan for Empire State into 40 chapters of 2,500 words. Such a division is arbitrary and artificial. If I’m working on a creative, artistic project like a novel, how can I be so mathematical and cold about it? You can’t routinize a creative art, because you destroy what is creative and artistic about it.

There lies another reason why people who want to write either don’t start, or they give up. They wait for exactly the right moment, the right mood, the right time or place to start writing. They wait for their muse to appear. They wait for when they can afford to rent a cottage on a lakeside in an autumn forest for a week to start their masterwork. But the muse never arrives, the mood is never right, there is always something more important to do like laundry.

I once had the pleasure of being shouted at by Tee Morris over Twitter. Okay, I asked for (quite specifically actually), and he gave some very good advice. A front-line solider can’t wait for their muse to show up so they can start shooting. So why should a writer wait for theirs? My novels have a target length of 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo’s target is 50,000 words in November. To meet that, you need to sit down and write. You need to make time for it, even when there is laundry to be done. If the laundry is important, the writing is important.

So, is my mathematical division of a novel into 40 precisely equal chapters a good thing or a bad thing? Well, like my outline, this may change. Empire State might be 50 chapters. It might be 27 chapters, ranging from 500 words to 7336 words in length. It doesn’t matter. My arbitrary division of 40 chapters is arbitrary and useful just so I could do a full breakdown. And then the breakdown itself might change anyway.

Is that all a waste of time then? Is outlining and chapter breakdowning a big excuse to procrastinate and not write? The short answer is yes, if you don’t then actually write the book. You could tinker with an outline forever and never actually start the story. But if you have a schedule (see, more routinizing) and targets and deadlines to meet (see, more mathematics), then it’s not a problem. I’ve spent two weeks outlining Empire State, during which time I’ve thought long and hard about the story. I suspect my subconscious has been working even harder filling in some background detail. For me this is valuable time, well-spent. I know the characters, what motivates them, what drives the plot, and how the plot will affect and change their lives.

Do what works

This is the key to it all. Do what works for you. You can read all the writing advice books and blog (and blog posts that are too long, like this one!) you like. Try outlining, try chapter breakdowns, try routines. Eventually you’ll find what works for you. And what works for you this year may not work for you next year. Your writing habits will change and evolve. They’ll improve, hopefully! If you need a 5000-word outline now for your first book, you may only need a 1000-word synopsis by the time you reach book five. Perhaps 40 chapters for 100,000 words doesn’t suit you, and you’ll plan for 25 chapters of 400 words each next time.

Fine, dandy. Works? Great. Doesn’t work? Ah well, try something else. It doesn’t matter. There are no writing rules, only techniques and habits and routines to get you started. Getting started is half the battle, getting finished – not stopping on page 3 because you’re stuck – is the other half.

  • I hope my shout was more like “tough love” than a berating! *LOL* Thank you for the mention and good luck to you in your writing endeavors!

  • I love this – a sane and non-dictatorial review of outlining is very welcome, especially as I am in the midst of my outlining for NaNo too!

    I agree with your pointing out that outlines can be changed. Making an outline and feeling so bound by it that it stifles any creativity seems like planning a holiday and following the plan to the letter even if you discover other delights along the way. Sure, you’ll get everything on your list ticked off, but you’ll miss out on those other exciting places that only good fortune can bring you.

    I outline all major plot threads, looking at pacing, novel arcs and whether I think that the reader will be kept happy at all points – it ensures there are no deserts in between plot driving events. Then I plan chapters in batches of 5 – this evolved because I found that once I started, the characters would have their own desires, regardless of what I had plotted to happen when. Then it would be negotiation, tweaking the plan in accordance with them. Hmm… I’m starting to sound mad and rambling so I’ll stop there! Roll on NaNo!

  • Adam Christopher

    Yes indeed, you let the Sarge take over your Twitter feed for a good old kick up the… well, anyway!
    Happy birthday for today, and have fun at WFC this weekend!

  • Adam Christopher

    Hi Emma,

    That doesn’t sound mad at all – the best part about writing is having your characters come to life and start changing things! I have had some funny looks when trying to explain this to non-writer friends, but you and I know what we’re talking about 🙂

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