Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Call to Adventure

I am jealous of organic writers. You know, those people who can sit down and write a story from beginning to end, seamlessly creating compelling story arcs and developing intriguing characters without breaking a sweat? Or those who can write disconnected scenes and chunks, and then connect these like some sort of invisible road map only they can see. I know the reality is different, even for these people, but it seems that there are a fair number of writers who are able to plot in their head, intuitively or otherwise, without once mapping out their story on paper. I suspect they drank less in college than I did.

When I first started working on my novel, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write a story except to just sit down and start writing it. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn’t realize about writing a novel back then, but we’re focusing on plotting here.

I’ve written quite a few scenes the organic way – just letting inspiration take me where it will. In my current novel, I probably have over 50,000 words written in scenes varying from ones I’m very proud of, to ones I wouldn’t read to my cat. The problem with this method, for me, is that without guidance my imagination tends to go off in many different directions, as if ten writers were all given a high level concept and sent out to write my novel. No matter how hard I try, the scenes I’ve written will never go together in the same book.

I need a better plan.

It’s not that I’ve wasted my time writing those 50,000 words. I’ve learned a lot about my characters and their culture and environment. The characters have evolved over time, maturing and becoming more like real people. Their lives have become more complicated. I can’t wait to tell their story.

So, uhm…how does one outline a novel?

Novelists on the whole seem to have grasped this concept intuitively. Books on novel writing tend to focus on craft, with maybe a chapter overview on the three and four act structure. There are very few novel writing books that deal with plot, structure, and how to create them. Even the writer’s conferences seem to avoid this topic. I’ve heard advice like "dissect a novel" or "use Excel" or "buy software like Scrivner or Liquid Story Binder." But none of this advice really addresses how one moves a plot from point A, where the story begins, to point Z, where the story ends.

(And for those of you who are organic writers, and are now saying "give it up!", bear with me. It’s not that I have no idea what my story is about. It’s just the scene to scene building, deciding between competing ideas part that gets me in a bind.)

But the screenwriters? They seem to have a passion for structure. Maybe it’s just because pulling apart the structure of a movie takes 2 hours, over and over a few times, until you’ve got each scene mapped out. Pulling apart the structure of a novel takes 10-15 hours, a few times, if you’re lucky and didn’t decide to analyze Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) or Pillars of the Earth (Ken Folliet) or Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).

To start my own journey of learning to plot and outline my novel, I asked around at the Compuserve Books and Writer’s forum, where most of my writing friends hang out. I received a number of recommendations: Create a Plot Clinic (Holly Lisle), The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler), The Hero’s 2 Journeys (an audio seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler), Story (Robert McKee), and Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder).

Note that all but Holly Lisle’s book have a primary audience of screenwriters. But the screenwriter seem to have a lot to say that makes sense.

So, I've set myself a task - to outline my novel. Like all good heroes, I've had a few false starts. I spent last summer looking at some software my stepfather (also an aspiring author) loaned me called The Writer's Dreamkit (more later, maybe). I also worked my way through Holly Lisle's Create a Plot Clinic. Then I reached my self-appointed end-date -- the end of summer, and discovered I had a lot of new scene ideas, and a new depth of understanding about my characters and story, but still no real structure.

Several months later and I'm at it again. And this time I'm sticking to it. I'd love to discuss my process and learnings with you - so stick around!


Lottery Girl said...

REALLY terrific post, Jenny. Speaks to me. I started off chunk-writing, but this didn't work out for me at all,because it was too undisciplined.

Writing is teaching me so much about myself. One, I hate discipline, so much so that I balk at being on any sort of schedule during the hours I am alone. BUT I can only be productive when I am disciplined. I must go and work out first thing, then work, cook, write, etc. Seems like if I fall off the wagon on anything, the whole day is ruined.

I have had it in the back of my mind to outline a book a like for a while. You may have heard Bernard Cornwell say at Surrey that he did this. Do you know which book you're going to do?

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Lottery Girl *g*
As far as dissecting a book, I think it's going to be easier to do one I've read before. I keep going back and forth. A well-written YA might be easy, just because they're shorter. I recently read "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen and loved it. I actually think her structure might be similar to something I might be interested in, so I might try that one.

I tried outlining Hot Target by Suzanne Brockmann awhile back (a long while back) but found that without a structure to outline into, I just got sucked back into the story and forgot to write things down.

Have you read Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey? It outlines the stages of the Hero's Journey, and (obviously) is the structure I'm going to write by. I'm working a worksheet to help me outline a book (I know...very anal). If you want to choose the same book as me (somebody from the forum, maybe?), maybe we could work on it together? I always like having someone to bounce ideas off of.

Lottery Girl said...

I think you should do a book as close to yours in structure. OR do one that you are madly in love with, and try to find out why. I would definitely be willing to outline a book, and then trade.

I don't think that's anal at all about the outline--if you shoot me a copy of it I'll use. That way we're more likely looking at the same thing.

No, I've not read that particular book. I did buy Story, and keep trying to read it, but am having trouble. It's not that it isn't good; it's more like it's dense, meaning that I find it so chock-full of stuff I have trouble digesting it all. That's a strange thing to say, isn't it?

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Trading sounds good! Give me a week to finish up my outline. I'm burried right now.

Story - my mom and stepdad accidentally bought me the audio version of Story, instead of text (the mysteries of Amazon). I've been trying to listen to it, but it about puts me to sleep (it's read by the author). Every once in awhile it trigger some astounding thought. I was hoping the print version was better.

Did you get my e-mail?

Amy Dupire said...

Hi Jenny,
Oh, I'm so where you are right now. I'm starting to brainstorm for a new novel, and wondering how much to plot out in advance, how long just to go with it, etc. I think I'll try both simultaneously. Each books does something different to me, I think, and I have to approach it differently. It's a pain.