It is still December and I am still in meta-mode.
I did not expect a trilogy. I did not expect to pour myself into Paris-related research and then (roughly) finish a first book based in England and Italy. I did not expect that in all likelihood every third scene or so that I’ve written in Paris will probably get cut or rewritten entirely, that 2013 will be the Year of Slaughter.
Obviously I have made a hash of this.
Or more to the point, I dove into it the way I dive into short stories. I have grown very comfortable with the process of expressing an arc in 6-8000 words, which includes a lot of stopping and returning-to-finesse but never really deviating from that initial spurt. My short fiction macerates for a long time, and when I do write it down more than half of that initial draft stays in.
Novels are completely different beasts. And yet I’ve been writing chapters that are, surprise! 6-8000 words long, that are pretty strong in and of themselves—but that haven’t always meshed when strung together.
Not that it’s all been a waste. I know my characters now; I’ve stretched myself into other POVs, all to the good. I have a clearer idea of what’s-at-stake and how all the other things I want to say can better weave in around that central core of what’s-at-stake. Before things were braided; now they are braided around a core. It’s a big difference.
The other big difference is that, with the Talassio bit (names may change but it’s sticking for now), I actually, um, outlined it. Not just E–>learns X in Milan, but actually writing out and then this happens and then this happens. Down to the minor conversations and the bit players and whether or not they stop to eat.
This was a huge thing for me. Because I hate outlines. To me they take all the life out of a work. Where’s the discovery, the left-turns that the characters take of their own accord? How can you tell something when and where to breathe? I hate them, yet I was also desperate to get this section done.
So I outlined Milan, and then I wrote it. Very quickly, broad strokes. Again, not really like me at all. Getting to the good bits in a hurry, trying to rediscover the enthusiasm for yet another dress description, yet another carriage ride.
And then last night I went back and looked at the Milan outline, and while the rough arc is the same, none of the inner stuff is the same at all. Minor characters came and went without a second thought, people got to their destinations by completely different routes. And yet they all ended up in the same scene as what I had written as my last little Outliner box.
Which is kind of weird and kind of . . . cool?
The other weird-but-cool thing: once I had written the outline, I simply stomped through Milan, though I couldn’t get started before that. But once outlined the chapters just came out, one after the other. So while outlines might be straitjackets, going into the writing with a plausible direction as well as an endpoint seems to make a huge difference.
To put it another way:
Let’s say I decide to drive to a city I’ve never been to before, say Portland. I know what Portland looks like, I know what direction it lies in, I have a rough idea of how far away it is.
If I simply decide to drive there, with no maps or directions, it will take ages. I’ll end up hesitating and taking wrong turns, I’ll find myself on looping roads and one-way streets in places I don’t even know the name of, all from trying to keep myself heading in that one direction.
If I print off directions and I follow them, I’ll get there very quickly and efficiently. But I won’t notice a damn thing on the way because I’ll be too busy checking the directions, and I’ll still have no sense of what to do if, say, a road is closed and I have to detour.
However: If I read over directions, study some maps, and then leave them behind? I know where I’m going, I’ll be able to make informed decisions about highways and exits . . . but I’ll also be looking around, I’ll have some unexpected detours and chance encounters. I’ll make it to Portland, but I’m sure to have an adventure or two along the way.
So here is my new novel-writing method: outline one section (I’m not sure how this would hold up if I stretched it for longer) in as much detail as you can stomach. Read it over, try to visualize it, twiddle with it until it’s a Proper Outline.
Then put it away and don’t look at it again.
It may seem redundant, but it sure beats writing whole chapters only to throw them away.
And it only took me two years to figure this out.