Thursday, June 14, 2007

Without a Net by Lynn Voedisch

There are writers who like things tidy, all neatly arranged and indexed. They probably have neat and organized houses, too. Then there are those of us who are called seat-of-the-pants writers, who work without a net and let our subconscious be our guide. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t use an outline. (My house is a mess, too.) It’s officially Not Recommended, but please understand that those of us who prefer this sort of free-form writing aren’t just flailing in the dark; we, too, have methods.

One of my Australian e-mail friends says we need to watch out for the Outline Police. It certainly does seem, if you pick up any how-to-write journal, that outlining is considered the golden rule of novel writing. Scofflaws are regarded with derision and even hotheaded scorn. Once on a mailing list, I was chastised by the owner, who said that whatever I was doing to keep the elements of the story together was still outlining. He had to believe this, because to him working without a chapter-by-chapter plan was unthinkable.

Well, he’s wrong. I don’t outline. The reason is pretty simple. In my case, having come from the world of journalism, there just never was time to outline. Everything a newspaper reporter does must be completed quickly and there is simply no time for outlines. So, when I approached novel writing, I figured “why start now?” The second reason I don’t outline is that I simply love it when the creative process suddenly leads me in a different direction—and I find it’s a better one. Several times new characters have arrived on the scene and inserted themselves in the action. In my second novel, still in manuscript form, the best character in the whole story is a guy who tapped on my shoulder and said he wanted to come in.

With an outline, those lovely moments of serendipity just don’t happen. I’ve heard from outline-lovers that they will deviate from the path if they want to. They swear the plan is flexible. I suppose it’s possible. But to me, just the idea of having something written down that I must follow seems antithetical to the creative process.

However, let’s get one thing straight: all writers have to know where they are going with their novel. You can’t start typing one day and let whims decide where you are going to go. Here are the tools I use to keep myself moving in the right direction:

An ending: You’ve should know how the book is going to end pretty early in the writing process. If you don’t have a clue, you’re still not going to have any idea when it comes to ending time. If you’ve ever read a book that has an unsatisfying ending, chances are that author didn’t think his ending out clearly to begin with. Always know where you want the action to resolve and how the protagonist changes.

Think it through: I spend a lot of time wandering around or lying on the couch, apparently doing nothing. But what I’m really doing is thinking through a chapter. I push my characters through various scenarios until I hit on the one that seems to work. Then I rush to write it all down. Often, a 2,000-word chapter will come flowing out of me in one day. That’s because it’s all clear in my mind thanks to a protracted period of kicking around ideas. Let yourself take this time. It’s essential to a well-conceived story, and works much better than the prescribed 500-words a day.

Get to know your characters: Don’t let these people you have created stay two-dimensional. They will start out that way, which is why the first chapters of a first draft are often so thin. But after a while, you’ll know their intimate thoughts. Listen to their voices. Watch what their eyes do when they smile. Notice their quirks. If you think you can get away with it, talk to them out loud. (Not recommended in public.) By the last draft, you’ll have characters who come alive—and you won’t want to say goodbye to them.

When stuck, draw a dramatic arc: On paper draw an arc, that gathers height slowly and then pitches down to the end, rather like a roller coaster. That’s your arc. Now draw a second one just below it. One is the outer arc (plot) and the other is the inner arc (character development). Mark on the arc key moments that are happening to your characters and notice how the plot gathers steam along with your protagonist’s revelations or pitfalls. Find your climax point and then the denouement to the ending will be easy. Each chapter has its own dramatic arc, too, but I don’t draw that out, I only keep it in mind.

Always remember what readership you are aiming for: If it’s a romance, don’t get all heavy on historical details. If it’s a mystery, don’t lose your way in a lot of subplots. If you are writing mainstream, picture who would be picking up your book and write to him or her.

It’s easy to work without a net if you organize things well in your mind. And when that funny character with the strange clothing and odd vocal inflections taps you on the shoulder, let him in. You don’t have an outline to keep him out.

To find out more about Lynn and where to purchase her work check out her website.


Jean said...

Interesting post:-) I've worked both ways...with and without an outline.

Of course my outlines are very informal and the "Outline Police" would hate them. They are more like, ch. 1...intro MC at work, add start of conflict or something similar.

For NaNo I did the seat of the pants thing. It was a blast not knowing what was going to happen next. However, I did have to take a day or two in the middle of the month to think about options.

Thanks for the post Lynn!


Sadie said...

Okay, honestly not trying to sound stalkerish here...but are you my twin?! *LOL*

Seriously, how you describe your writing process sounds SO much like mine. I know the ending, and I very often "sleep on" chapters, meaning I lie awake while my husband snores, staring at the ceiling and listening to my characters play.

I also have characters that play unexpected roles, that just appear on a whim and turn into something so much more.

I'm a disorganized mess. I can't outline. I can't do character bios (although I did try this time...I got 5 done!!). The story writes itself, I'm just a tool.

Thank you for this great post!! I really enjoyed reading it and knowing that I'm not a fluke of nature :D

Cheryl said...

Nice post Lynn. Like Speck, I've worked both ways and my outlines really aren't that detailed. My characters are always going off and doing their own thing, which is perhaps one of the most exciting things about writing to me.

The other thing that is great about your post, is the fact that it shows once again, what works for one writer does not necessarily work for another. Some work best during the day, others at night. Some outline, some don't. Some wouldn't think about starting a novel without a series of character worksheets, others don't use them.

Thanks for your sharing your thoughts on this topic. It is always insightful to see how other writers approach their work.

Cheryl M.

Bastet said...

Thanks, everyone.

Glad to know that I'm not alone!

If you'd like to look at info on my book, go over to the page. Just enter "Excited Light" in he search box and it will come up.

My Web site, also has an except and direct link to Amazon.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you wrote this blog, Lynn. It makes me feel much better about the way I write, which is similar to yours. You made me feel that it's ok to write without a net, which is my natural way to write. Like you, when I write down an outline, I feel boxed into it, and it's harder to change things around. I no longer feel like I'm doing something wrong by writing without a net (I do have a mental outline of some sort when I start, just not one written in pencil). :) Sharon

Anonymous said...

I absolutely hated doing outlines for school projects and papers. Like you, I did not see the need and I felt locked into what I was forced to outline. My background is also in journalism, so perhaps you are on to something! I like to "think outside the capital letters and numbers"!