Innocent Writer — Led Astray!

I think part of the reason I hate outlines is that they lead me into fatal errors.

No, wait, let me rephrase that – the reason I hate PROPOSALS and the outlines that accompany them is that they lead me into fatal errors.

Outlining a book for a proposal is not the same as outlining it for writing.  For one, you truly can’t (Heck, even I can’t) read a proposal without my eyes glazing.  Yes, even my own proposals.  A proposal is a sales tool.  I learned early on that I had much better luck if I sprinkled the proposals with “scenes” from the (not yet written) book.  And the proposal can only be about ten pages.  This means what I have in there before that is the barest sketch of an outline.  Not much to lead me astray, you say.

And yet it often does.

See, when I write a “synopsis” for myself, it is a thing without form or substance to anyone else.  I think I do in words what other people do in pictures.  That is, I’ve belonged to writers’ groups where people spend time clipping pictures from magazines (I suppose now from the net) that excite them or give them an idea.  Okay.  I can see that much.  While making covers over at dreamstime, I’ve often come across pictures that intrigue me enough that I think “I should be able to write a story for that.”  So far, let me tell you I haven’t.  But I can see doing that.

But the way my colleagues work is yet totally different – they’ll string two dozen or so pictures, put them on a corkboard, and they get the feel of what the novel will be from this.

For me, a working synopsis in its first incarnation, might be something similar.  I’ll have “Beginning of – ” and the name of a book or even a Disney comic.  Looking at it will bring it back, but other people might never get what element started this.  And it doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do with the book that’s finished.  I can’t remember now the title, but the opening of A Few Good Men was sparked by the beginning of a romance, in which someone is being transported on trumped up charges.  I didn’t know THAT had anything to do with the book, I just thought some element there (which, btw, might have been the voice or the landscape) would work for AFGM.  Then there’s songs.  I’ll hear a song and go “Oh, that’s so and so’s theme song.”  And I write that down.  Now, at this point the novel doesn’t yet have a title (though some appear first as titles) but it does have a character.  ALL of my stories, from novels on, start as “So and so’s story.”

This is before the real working outline.  That’s when – after some period of “cooking” in the subconscious which can go from a few months to a year or more – the novel is suddenly clear in my mind.  I then sit down and write, usually, ten pages or so for me.  (This is my process now.  I used to write fifty page outlines, once upon a time, because I was trying to figure out plot at the subconscious level.  I think I’ve now integrated it there, and don’t need to do front-brain work on it, unless there’s a tricksy bit.)  Mind you, these ten pages are supercompacted stores of information.  One line, at one time I had the line “Vara goes banana tree” which translated into three chapters of the character descending into paranoia.  The lines can be that short because they are FOR ME and don’t need to make sense to anyone else.

This is the point I’m usually ready to sit down and write the novel.  This means I write three chapters, then outline the next ten in detail, sometimes running to twenty pages or so.  Then I write them.  Then I outline the next ten.  Now, often enough I only write five, and realize it won’t do.

What do I mean by that?  There are motivations and behaviors that seem perfectly good in outline, but which become painfully flimsy on paper in extended version.  For those who read AFGM I had the two main characters originally argue over the dog and come to punches.  For those who didn’t read it (meaning you’re not betas) these two characters have a lot of other reasons to resent each other, particularly one towards the other, but I thought – on outline – it would be a clever trick to make them argue over possession of a dog, instead.  When I tried to write it, it wouldn’t come off.  It was impossible to make it fly without a series of misunderstandings and implied insults and other stupid-plot devices.  I realized it as soon as I wrote the scene, and spent three days in misery trying to figure out how to rewrite it.  Removed the misunderstandings, and had them argue about the REAL causes of resentment, instead, even if one can’t ever completely name them.  They are clear to the reader.

Again, mind, the argument over the dog seemed perfectly reasonable on extended chapter by chapter outline.  It was only when I snapped the piece into place that I realized it needed to be sitcom-level stupid to work.

So sometimes I write two or three chapters, then sit down and rewrite the whole outline because of the things that have changed.

For instance, until the very last set of – long hand – outlines Tom’s father was an out and out villain in Draw One In The Dark.  Except that didn’t make it a strong book.  It made him into a comedy villain, twirling his moustache, nothing more.  And therefore, I changed it.

Where the selling outline intrudes: It requires me, usually at a time when the novel is little more than a glimmer in my eye (or the back of my mind) to make it real enough for someone to buy.  This means bringing it from the back brain into the forebrain.  And making it “rational” and “About something.”  (Yes, of course all my books are about something.  But often I don’t know that till the last phrase is written.  No, I don’t think anyone else works like that.  Yes, it’s entirely possible I’m nuts.)

And you’re saying “But Sarah if you go completely indy, you don’t need outlines.”  True, though I haven’t yet figured out if Toni will allow me to work without proposals for future books.  That’s … something else.  OTOH RIGHT NOW I’m not completely indy and the last set of proposals I sold had a major boner in them.  This is the musketeer vampire books.  I’ve been struggling with the second for various reasons too lengthy to go into, but the main of them is this:

The series is not REALLY a series, but one long, massive book.  As such, the middle book feels like the middle of a book, where you’re setting all the dominos in place, but you haven’t “broken the novel’s back” yet (This is my idiom for the point at which the novel snaps and more or less writes itself at speed.  It happens anywhere from halfway to two thirds through.)  So as a book it feels meandering and unfocused.

And here is where I made the mistake in proposal.  I kept the focus of the novel on the same person as the first book.  Since the three novels are metaphorically the character’s descent into hell and return  (Metaphorically.  He doesn’t ever die as such.) in selling outline form this seemed ENTIRELY logical.

The problem is it won’t fadge, and I can’t get the book to feel like a book, let alone to extend to the required length.

However, now that I have a first version written and the third book is starting to take shape, it’s obvious what I should do: The book’s main character is the one who got “compromised” and whose nature changed at the end of the last book.  This book is his journey, in which he conquers his inner demons.  The other’s descent continues, as needed so he can come up again, but he’s not nor should ever have been the focus.

How I missed that in the outline is now beyond me.  HOWEVER it’s another advantage for me of working “without a net” (or a proposal.  Wait, that is working without a net, since I have to wait for the books to sell to make money.  No net.  No gross either.)

Now I don’t know if other writers’ brains work like mine.  Often, when people explain how they come up with stories and/or write – including a colleague who plots by BEADING – I wonder if I’m wired backwards from everyone else.  So maybe for everyone else it won’t be such a change.

And now, forgive me the foregoing ramble – I’m going to go recast this – grossly overdue – novel!

7 responses to “Innocent Writer — Led Astray!

  1. Then there’s those “minor” characters that want to take over the story. [Wink]

  2. Problems of this sort are typical in performing arts, such as Broadway-style musicals. When they try it out in New Haven they discover the audience just isn’t accepting characters’ motivations, or a minor duet by the juvenile & the second ingenue, intended to cover a set change, just RESONATES with the audience and demands further development.

  3. I usually start with something too loose to call an outline. A vague plot line, perhaps. When I get stuck and frustrated, I start outlining the scene that isn’t working in detail, and sometimes going back a scene to find where the problem started. _Then_ I write to outline, the characters behave, and what needs to happen starts flowing again.

  4. A good number of my story ideas come from dreams in some shape or fashion. I have movie-length dreams quite frequently. Obviously, they don’t always make sense, but they can meld together interesting things that my conscious mind might not come up with. I write down as much as I can remember in a dump file and let them sit, generally.

    I know what you mean about, “Looks good on paper, but when you get to writing that part you realize it’s not going to work that way.” Working on a short story now based on an older short story I wrote about five years ago. The original worked and was hot because of the characters involved. When I changed the characters and setting and tried to get it to work, it wouldn’t even though the characters were similar to their sources. (No, I’m not basing this off of fanfiction – just original characters whose “real” stories don’t work that way.) I’m sure that it’s obviously, “duh, if you change characters + setting it wouldn’t work that way – they’re different people and in a different situation”. I was just surprised at how much things have changed from the basic plot just by tweaking how the people around them were likely to be and making one of the characters less whimsical.

    I don’t do long outlines for similar reasons to why things didn’t work for me with the story I mention above. I’ve gotten better over the years in remembering scenes I wanted to write towards, so I just basically write outlines like a list of landmarks I want to see on a roadtrip – that way if we detour I can just rearrange the “landmarks” I want to see and drop the ones that no longer make sense at all.

    Character A meets Character B at a party.
    Dance scene where they fall in love.
    A & B agree to meet again.
    Realize after making plans that they are ostensibly enemies.
    Decide to meet up anyway.
    Fall further in love when they meet.
    Balcony scene? Or pool?
    Agree to get married. Eh, they’re teenagers. Maybe make younger.
    Fight scene? A v B’s cousin? Need scene with cousin…
    Sex scene.
    Ultimately: Prince guy tells the families to stop fighting already. Dang, yo.

    And then I’d write up to those points and realize that after the sex scene Romeo – I mean, Character A – needs to get the heck out of Dodge and B is going to freak out a lot and… etc. I often leave huge gaps between landmarks and othertimes plot out the landmarks very closely together because I have the idea that incident Z can’t happen without X and Y before it.

    I have an entire retelling of a fairytale done line by line in the sense of long sentences to explain what I’m going to do, but that was how I worked a few years ago – or maybe just how I’d work with wanting a story that worked closely with an original source material.

    Just as an insight to how I work, not saying mine works best. :B

  5. I HATED writing to proposal – it always robbed the life out of a story for me, to have to pin it down. The wings would stop flapping and the idea would just sort of lie there, staring at me with glassy eyes.

    Yes, I am a serious back-of-the-brain pantser. In the end, everything I need will be there, in the book, but it’s not a conscious process. Another reason I’m so glad to be self-publishing these days. 🙂

    • You and me sister. I think I might be a pantser in denial, considering where I’m going now that I don’t have to have stuff pre-sold. Same as I’m wondering if I was ever a short story writer — left to their own devices, my shortest works seem to be novellas.