Saturday, April 21, 2012

Writing Outside the Outline

I went to a class once about crafting the outline of your book. This is something a great many writers are quite religious about. It’s their process and how they start out on the journey to create every new book they write. Personally, it drives me NUTS!

In this particular class the writer (VERY successful, New York Times, yada, yada, yada…) showed us a spiral road map she had created for her latest book. I think the idea was that she started on the outside, like a maze, and wound her way to the conclusion in the center. As she wrote she followed the stepping stones of the path, plugging in character, plot twists or denouement at the appointed locations along her spiral outline. It didn’t look like Greek to me; it looked like something out of trigonometry or advanced geometry…which is much worse.

While I envy writers who are so organized that they can plot each step along the way and stick to it, my efforts to emulate them have ended in great frustration. I’m like a claustrophobic cat stuck in a tiny cage...underground. Let me out!!

Don’t get me wrong, I have a very good idea of what I’m after and where I’m going when I tap out those first words on the first page of a new book. I’ve made notes, done research and, as you might have noticed in my previous blog, percolated over the whole thing quite a bit.

But if I try to force my characters to stick to an outline they get very belligerent and, at some point, they will inevitably just stand there, arms crossed, scowling at me, refusing to do anything more until I agree to release them to their own wiles.

Of course, once I do that, it’s generally agreed that I can go back in and tweak some their less brilliant decisions during the editing process. Fictional characters will get carried away if you leave them to their own devices for too long!

I’m also free to skip around and write scenes out of order if I wake up one morning writing dialogue in my head for a scene that’s yet to come. Occasionally that scene reveals something about the plot or the character that I hadn’t considered, and serves to strengthen previous scenes once I return writing in a straight line.

I know I am not alone in this method, but it’s not the sort thing that’s easily taught in a workshop, and seems more likely to be admitted to only during a heart to heart, or after a nice glass of Riesling. I, however, am proud of my process, unstructured as it may seem to those outside my head. And ultimately, it gets me to the same place: The End. 

Photo of Archemedean Spiral courtesy of Xah Lee Web

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


For some reason my brain has lately latched upon the concept of percolating when it comes to creating or making a decision. Yes, I’m showing my age if I admit remembering percolating coffee makers, but we had moved on to the drip system by the time I was drinking coffee in earnest.

Still, the concept of percolating is intriguing, and aptly applied to the writing process. What others might consider procrastination or downright avoidance is often plain old percolation! You might think when I do the laundry, vacuum the rug or pull weeds in my garden that I’m procrastinating. But you are wrong-I’m percolating!

Let me explain. The different stages of creation (coffee or art) start at the top of the pot with the perforated spreader plate through which hot water drips down onto the coffee grounds below. I like to think of this as the actual ‘hands on keyboard’ or ‘pen to paper’ process trickling down and filling the blank page with words.

Next comes the filter—obviously the editing process! And the resulting brewed coffee is the final edit, ready to be enjoyed by caffeine addicts worldwide…once published, which must be when it’s poured out of the spout! Okay, let’s not get over-similed!

But still, you see what I’m saying; it’s a process. And way down there at the bottom of the pot is a very important component we shouldn’t forget: the heat source. In coffee, it’s, well, heat!

In writing, the heat source can be any number of things that spur us to creative action. The spark of inspiration that perked up at the very start is definitely a heat source. As is the desire to express and share your thoughts. Of course, it could be the critique buddy who is waiting for more pages to read or the demands of a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo. Maybe even an agent or editor counting down a deadline.

Ultimately, proper percolation can provide a potent brew, in the cup or on the page.

image courtesy of Wikipedia