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Click. Click. Click.
Had a pretty good writing day today. Not so much with the actual typing and producing of pages (though I did more than my day's quota of that, too), but with that other part of writing—the part that involves pacing, muttering, and staring at the ceiling fan for hours on end.
That is to say, the hard part. Which is also, on good days, the really fun part.
I'm the type of writer who very much prefers to write to an outline. Some folks can't stand outlines, and have built hugely successful careers by assiduously avoiding them. Others can't imagine writing without one at hand, and have built hugely successful careers entirely on careful outlining.
Me? Well, obviously, I don't fall in either camp. I'm not hugely successful, you see. Thanks for asking, though.
But I do like my outlines. I like a specific kind of outline, with a particular level of detail (and generality). Writing, like every other creative process, is very personal, and there are as many writing processes as there are writers (if not more). It's taken me several years to get a feel for how outlines do and don't work for me.
An overly detailed outline can be confining. It doesn't leave room for inspiration. It ignores those bursts of creativity that strike out of the blue when I'm filling the birdfeeder or waiting for the bus or standing in the shower. And to lose those moments, rare as they are, would be to the detriment of my writing. For me, anyway, those random moments of inspiration often give rise to nice plot twists, or unforseen complications for my characters, or particularly nice solutions to plot problems. The twists and turns of story that I enjoy the most, the juiciest bits of character interaction, frequently come out of those moments.
At the same time, trying to write a novel to an overly-vague outline feels like trying to drive from New York to Los Angeles according to the following directions: Drive west until you hit the Pacific Ocean, then turn south.
So, I've learned that I work best when I have a "tentpole" outline. If the novel is a circus tent (go with me on this) the major scenes and events in the book are the poles that support the rest of the story, and thus give it its overall shape. The tentpole outline gives me the structure of the book. I need the structure or I have trouble going forward. (Bitter Seeds, for instance, has a standard three-act structure... kind of like the three-ring circus at Barnum and Bailey, now that I think about it.)
But the tentpoles don't tell you about each little ripple in the fabric, the stiching in the seams, the creases, the tiny little spots where the waterproofing has worn thin. And the tentpole outline doesn't dictate what happens on every single page.
It tells me which characters control which scenes, and where they're going, and roughly how they're going to get there (whether they want to or not). To flit back to my original analogy, it's a roadmap from NY to LA with lots of landmarks along the way: Corn Palace. Biggest Ball of Twine. Museum of Medical Oddities. It tells me how to get where I'm going, but it leaves me free to figure out the details along the way. Done right, it gives my subconscious just enough freedom to have fun, but not enough to be paralyzing.
The benefit of this, for me, is that I'm not slavishly devoted to my outlines. When I started the Milkweed Triptych several years ago, I sat down with my writing group and, over 8 grueling hours, we plotted out the entire trilogy: Bitter Seeds in great detail, Coldest War in fair detail, and Necessary Evil in broad strokes. And now that I'm closing in on the end of Necessary Evil, I can look back and say that the overall story of the trilogy is remarkably similar to the original conception. Each book begins and ends exactly where I thought it would. Each book contains all of the major the events I thought it would.
But the details have been negotiable. There are places—a scene here, a chapter there, an entire act way over there—where I've diverged wildly from the outline. Not because I got lost or because I got careless (not that that doesn't happen, too...), but because I saw something really cool just over the next hill and I had to go play with it. Something much better than what the outline called for.
I'm not afraid to take detours of opportunity. My tentpole outline tells me where I need to be by a particular point in the story. As long as I can see my way back to the road, I don't mind hiking into the woods every so often.
That's what happened this morning, as I was contemplating the final sequence of scenes in Necessary Evil. I pulled over to the side of this long, windy road I've been driving for the past 4 years and, while stretching my legs, I discovered—just on the other side of a stand of trees—a traffic-free toll-less superhighway aimed straight at my destination.
I love it when that happens.