So I Started a Novel…
This past weekend, while out for drinks with several of my closest friends, I made the spontaneous decision to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I have always had the desire to write a novel, and often find myself daydreaming about becoming the next great American writer; however, I’ve never really committed to actually sitting down to write that shitty first draft. Despite participating in several writing workshops, producing several poems of mediocre quality, and even earning multiple degrees in English, I always seem to get stuck on that first couple of lines of a creative piece.
This year it’s a little different. I think a combination of my dissatisfaction with my life situation — a job that’s demoralizing, a job search that’s even more so, the big questioning that occurs when one has to interface with the sorts of things that we have this past year or two — plus the sheer boredom of not being in school for the first time in my life, has helped propel me into the position of a (so far) rather successful NaNoWriMo’er.
In this post I want to establish a weekly update for myself — a check-in as I make the journey from zero to 50,000 words. I want to catalogue these moments because I want to be able to look back and identify those obstacles that I overcame and those triumphs that kept me going. I also think it would be valuable to describe the processes I’ve taken, if only for myself, since I’ve never really had any processes to work with. Finally, I’ve never blogged before, and that elusive writing/editing job in the sky seems to demand some kind of portfolio.
So without further delay, my topic of analysis for today’s post is…
I’ve played with several methods of outlining in the past. Some were more useful for essaying, some were more useful for storytelling, and some were entirely useless all together. For me, outlining should be a continuous process of discovery — the loose fittings to which the pegs of your story fit. There’s room for things to move around, to change, to be recombined into something entirely new.
I know some folks prefer the heavily detailed outline; when writing the who-done-it, they know, well, who-done it. They know every possible detail of the plot, the world, and the characters. When building their worlds they know how the magic works, what all the limitations are, the ancestry of every family and the precise date and time when an innocuous building was first drafted.
For me, this kind of outlining is rigid and limiting. It becomes difficult for me to introduce new ideas or concepts, perhaps because I myself tend towards rigidity. I trust “the process” to a fault, and I get bogged down in the details, constantly mulling over the intricate relational networks rather than starting the scene and discovering those networks.
And that, to me, is the key word: Discovery.
I’m greatly inspired by creatives like David Lynch and Adrei Tarkovsky — two filmmakers whose often esoteric and incomprehensible plots work to produce stories of great emotional depth. They tend to rely on a feeling rather than a linear series of causality. They turn film and storytelling into a still-frame with all its complexities. They’re not afraid to follow that interesting byway into the dark place of the story, where logic breaks down in favor of atmosphere.
So as I set off to begin my novel, I did start with an outline, but with the intention that it was mutable and temporary. The outline is a thing that puts the plot just three steps ahead of where you’re discovery is happening. I might not know the end, but I know where I’m going, and with that I can steer freely as I find interesting alcoves or compelling personalities. I’m not binding myself to one resolution, but leaving the story open to finding its own.
I am not sure if this is a method that’s already been committed to paper and published in any slew of how-to-write’s — I frankly don’t care — I only know that I developed my method from one necessity, and that was outlining roleplaying sessions as a dungeon master.
Session planning for a roleplaying campaign can be an extremely tricky and delicate affair. You, as the dungeon master, are trusted to lead several real people on a fictitious journey through a world in your minds. You control the world itself, and by extension, you control the way which events begin to unfold. Sometimes your players will throw the plot into entirely new directions, ones that you did not anticipate, and you have to be prepared to guide them along this uncertain storytelling and provide a compelling and enjoyable experience. After all, people roleplay to have fun.
So to resolve my own session planning obstacles, I needed a method for outlining what could happen, what I wanted to happen, and one that was also reflexive enough to change session by session. Some details would be immutable — a particular object would be required to open a secret passageway — while others would be guidelines, as in, someone knows this information, but I’ll figure it out adhoc.
I jokingly refer to this process as Hemingwaying, because by cutting out ancillary details and leaving only the guiding principles of the storytelling, I am left with an outline that is adaptable to changing conditions.
My method might look something like this:
The young soldier is ambushed by the young ranger. The pair learn that they are searching for the ruins. They find the ruins after some travel together. The ruins contain the treasure they are both seeking. Will they fight, or cooperate, in the end?
You can already see how bare-bones this kind of outlining is, yet it guides the story and the plot specifically enough to allow me to identify where the conflicts are, where the possible tensions arise, and briefly identifies how characters will interact and form relationships.
In my novel draft I’ve applied this very same principle. Each chapter is broken into several scenes, each scene is outlined in this bullet-point fashion, and I’m outlining maybe four to five scenes beyond where I am currently writing. I often have to change scene order, or specific details, or gut and rewrite entire outlines as I discover new characters or interesting parallels during the writing process. This outline makes that easy, because I’ve never committed to anything beyond the next few narrative beats. And because of it, I’ve hit 10,000 words in the first week!
Before I end this post to avoid continuing ad infinitum, I want to mention one last influence to my outlining style that has been invaluable.
Eric Hayot’s book The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities
We got this book at the beginning of my graduate program in English literature, and it’s been my writing companion ever since. While it was explicitly written to help graduate students navigate the particular writing styles necessary to succeed in the humanities, I have found that the core principles Hayot lays out can be applied to all forms of writing.
The principle here is simple — each element of the piece builds off of the last element, with the next piece recalling, addressing, and then adding to whatever the previous element discussed.
I think this can be a great mindset when thinking about the organic development of a story, especially when you are not yourself familiar with how it might end or where it is going. By simply remembering to follow each element with one that resolves or addresses the last, while adding something new or building upon an existing theme, then the piece will guide itself towards a natural conclusion or, if there is no conclusion, at least it will possess consistency and continuity.
I appreciate anyone who’s reading this, and enjoy feedback! I do it for myself, but what’s a writer without a reader?
Buy me a beer by following the URL below — no pressure, of course, but it would be much appreciated!