Monday, July 02, 2007

Loretta Lynn Said It:

"You have to be different, great, or first."

(From Austin Kleon's cool post it collage.)

I have my novel open on my computer. I know what the next scene is. I even know what the chapter after THAT is. I just don't know what the next sentence is so rather than actually work, I'll blog.

It's like warming up. Doing a little jog before the race.

In the warm glow of last night's drink, I promised something...oh, shit. Right. Organic versus outline. The whole stupid, how do you write your novel thing. David is right, vegetables (organic) versus outlines would be better. I don't outline. Outlining is for hacks. I believe in the difficult but fulfilling process of finding my novel as I write it; letting inspiration and the shape of what I've already written shape what comes next. Which is why I've thrown this novel out five times already.

But outlining is mechanical. It limits the subtle interplay of character and situation that make a novel unexpected and, well, art. Which is why its for hacks. Like William Faulkner, who outlined one of his novels on the walls of his study. (Okay, I think it was The Hamlet, which is not one of his novels that is, you know, taught at college, like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, or even Light in August.)

I tried outlining a novel, my second novel, and it was my least successful. There were probably other mitigating factors to that. I had written half the novel over a period of many years starting my senior year of college, abandoned it and written my first published novel, and come back to it. I had changed a lot and a lot of what the novel was about, I no longer felt quite so keenly about. The novel was originally written in two different tenses and I allowed myself to be talked out of that, which was, in retrospect, a mistake. And I wasn't a very good writer yet.

But I blame the outline.

Still, after thrashing around in this current work, I'm thinking an outline might not be a bad idea. I have been thinking about writing this thing a lot lately. (Not, you will note, actually writing it.) And it seems, when I am not actually writing it, that if I outlined it, I could, you know, bang it out pretty quick. Which might mean that when I get to stage four of the novel process chart (from the last post, the stage that says 'This Really Sucks') I might not throw it all out. I might actually finish it.

I thought, when I threw it out and started over the last time, that it was because it was not first, great or different, to cite Loretta Lynn. But maybe it was just because I thought it sucked.

If you subscribe to the theory that the two great structures of literature are 'A Stranger Comes to Town' (the Iliad) and 'Someone Goes On a Journey' (the Odyssey) then the book I am working on now is 'Someone Goes on a Journey.' I don't actually subscribe to that theory, and I'm pretty sure no one actually does anymore. But it's useful to think about that when thinking about the novel and the outline.

Besides, if I'm outlining, I'm 'working' without actually having to work. Right?


Blogger Bri said...

I do a little of both - I jot down the scene ideas in a list and then add to them - until I've got several pages of the thing. I just revise until they're scenes and chapters, etc. So I guess my outline grows into a novel - but I don't keep track of tension, or pacing, or character development. All of that sort of takes care of itself as long a I can see where the story may be headed.

That's some sort of devotion to come back to this novel after all those times! Good luck with it!

July 03, 2007 2:38 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Maureen, I love that outline of a dragon on your back!

--Kathy H.

July 03, 2007 5:54 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Okay, it's not my back.

But it IS an outline!

July 03, 2007 7:33 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I always outline. Partly that is because I have to write an outline to sell the book--- I always sell the book before I write it, because when I wrote them before selling them they sometimes didn't sell, and you can waste years that way--- but in part I outline because I always want to know where the damn thing's going. Writing without a notion of where I'm going is a near-guarantee that I'll end up in wandering mazes lost.

I'm not sure why outlining limits the subtle interplay of character and situation, because let's face it, none of that's in the outline anyway. That's all in your writing.

But here's the thing: when you start your writing, and you come up with a better idea, you can always chuck the outline and write the cool thing instead. I've done that on a number of occasions. No editor has ever said, "But you didn't stick to your outline!" Instead they said, "Wow, what a cool thing!"

If writing is a high-wire act, then the outline is your net. And if I'm going to go up that high, I want a net to catch me when I fall.

July 03, 2007 7:47 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

And besides, I thought there were supposed to be three whole possible plots: The Little Tailor; the Person Who Learned Better; and Boy Meets Girl.

July 03, 2007 7:53 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Walter, you're a hack, just like that Faulkner guy.

July 03, 2007 9:45 PM  
Blogger Carlo said...

How about instead of outlining, you just sit at your computer and think, "I have to keep writing because my friend Karen has been stuck with my characters back by the lake scene for two years and wants to know what happens next?"
Would that work? :-) (No, it wouldn't work for me, either.)

July 03, 2007 10:49 PM  
Anonymous karen said...

By the way, the previous post was from Karen, not Carlo. I was using his computer and, apparently, blogger thinks I'm him.

July 03, 2007 10:50 PM  
Blogger Duane said...

Hi Maureen,
Like you, I'm a HD survivor. I linked your blog to my site. Can you do the same for my blog?

Wishing you continued strength and health,

July 04, 2007 2:29 AM  
Blogger Sean said...

Hey, Maureen!

I'm having this exact argument with one of the other folks in my writer's group. I'm in the middle (thought I was near the end until I carefully examined the unfulfilled plot threads), and I'm working with a fellow who's writing a detective novel. He's convinced that a satisfying plot can be best brought about through careful preparation, and I've found that when I try and plan this particular work out, it dies. And most of the things about my novel that go over well with my readers are the things that surprised me when I wrote them out. On the other hand, I've been working on this novel for three years now. When I did a full outline, I was able to write a film script in two weeks, even though a page of script took me twice as long to write as a page of prose. I'm gonna keep experimenting, flipping around between approaches, but at the end of the day I think that the freeform approach produces work that seems closer to, if you will excuse the expression, art.

Oh. And Maureen? I thought very highly of China Mountain Zhang. When I was dealing with my brother's East coast funeral it was what the SubGenii call a Short Duration Personal Savior. Despite everything I was going through, when I sat down and read the book I was transported by its sheer coolness. Okay?

July 04, 2007 6:57 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

Working w/o actually having to work is crucial to the writer.
Btw, I also liked CMZ a lot. I liked the sense of passion held in check.

July 05, 2007 10:23 AM  

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