Outline or fossil?

Okay, I’ve got the character, setting and initial situation. Is that all I need to start writing a novel? What about outlining? What about writing scenes on index cards? Who’s driving this ship, anyway?

And the answer is, of course, the story is driving the ship.

This is different from how I usually work. Historically, I’ve been an outliner, a planner. I’ve been the kind of writer who writes character sketches, outlines the scenes in ever chapter and generally spends so much time researching and “developing” a story that I never get around to actually writing it.

NaNoWriMo makes that mode of storytelling almost impossible. The overriding requirement to get 50,000 words in one month, over 1,667 words a day, every day, makes such planning an impossibly expensive use of my writing time. Because keep in mind, I have a day job and a social life, and will not be putting either on hold for NaNoWriMo.

Fortunately, meticulous planning isn’t the only way to tell a story. My other option is the fossil.

I’ve talked about this before. In his excellent On Writing–and if you’re serious about writing and you haven’t read this, you really should, no matter what you think of King as a writer–Stephen King likens stories to found things, like fossils in the ground. Writers don’t invent stories as much as we uncover the stories that were already there, lying quietly in our minds. The really good writers don’t break very much digging it up.

King starts all of his novels much as I’m starting Sins of the Mothers. He has a situation in mind, a character or two, and sets events in motion. Like a lot of writers, I’m sure he has an intuitive feel for where to start the action, but once it starts, he just keeps asking “and then what?” until the story plays itself out in his word processor. He says that only rarely does he have a definite ending in mind.

I’m doing things a little bit differently. I do know where I’m going to end the story, but only vaguely. I have a sense of supporting characters, both protagonist and antagonist, and what their motivations are. And I have a basic sense of how the story has to start. Here’s my “outline” for lack of a better word.

  • Start with Sophie learning about the end of the Nemesis war and the destruction of Earth.
  • Sophie learns that the Sendeni plan to kill her rather than figure out what to do with her.
  • Sophie goes on the run.
  • Sophie meets up with some male Sendeni, and is able through her telepathic abilities to communicate with them in a rudimentary way. I don’t know yet why they don’t just kill her on sight or why they decide to hide her.
  • A whole bunch of stuff happens, during which Sophie becomes a revolutionary leader for the male Sendeni.
  • Sophie is killed, maybe in battle, maybe assassinated. The story will tell me which.
  • Sophie’s lieutenants pick up where she left off and achieve their independence.

So you can see, I have a pretty clear big picture view of the first act, from the opening to Sophie joining forces with the males. I have a less clear but still relatively solid view of what act three has to contain. I have no gorram idea at all what will comprise act two, the bulk of the novel. Basically, I know where I’m going for my first 10,000 words and my last 20,000, but the 40-50k in the middle is a complete mystery to me.

And that’s as it should be. Between Heaven and Hell was rigorously plotted, down to 3-5 major scenes per chapter, 20 chapters per “book”. In a lot of ways, I wrote it like I was structuring a 3-season run of a TV show, because I was reading a lot of writing advice from Joe Straczynski at the time about how he did Babylon 5 and that’s all I had to go on as far as how to actually do this stuff. Since then, I’ve written “Do Over!”, a novella, and nearly completed two novels: Mistaken Identity, the sequel to Between Heaven and Hell and the start of the Nemesis War, and Homeworld, my Mars novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2006. In writing all of these I’ve learned that my instincts as a storyteller trump plot. The last ten thousand words or so of Between Heaven and Hell veered wildly from my outline because by then the story had me in its grip and I was just racing to write it all down. I got into that zone a lot earlier in Mistaken Identity, veering off track into a much better story than I had planned about 30,000 words in, and slipped into that intuitive mode almost right off the bat with Homeworld, because NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you time to plot.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. When I was a little kid, we’re talking maybe six or seven, teachers used to pull me out of class and take me up to the fifth and sixth grade classrooms. I’d stand there in front of a class full of kids over one and half times my age and ad lib fairy tells, complete with morals, right off the top of my head. I was born with a storyteller’s instincts, a fundamental understanding of Plato’s three act structure before I ever knew who the heck Plato was. And story is story, there’s no difference between a five minute oral fairy tale and a 100,000 word novel. Each is a fractal reflection of the other, and that fractal image is etched into my DNA.

Between now and November first, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I have a solid foundation upon which to build. I’m going to know as much about Sophie and the initial conditions of the novel as I can. I’m going to know as much about the Sendeni and their culture and government as I can. I’m going to craft a solid opening line. But no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no outline surives contact with the manuscript. Once I start writing, all this prep work drops away and it’s on.

All I need to do is get out of the story’s way as I’m writing it down.

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