Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Shoe Salesman in My Head

If you've ever attended a writing workshop, read a how-to book, or surfed online chats, you're familiar with the Outline versus Rough Draft discussion.
It seems writing like American politics –no, I'm not going THERE folks!--
can be divided into two camps: those of us who outline and follow our roadmap and those of us that follow the words through the maze, trusting the story breadcrumbs to lead us through to The End.
I outline.
I think in mystery it helps immensely to have the puzzle organized before you get two hundred pages in and realize the serial-killing shoe salesman belongs in a different book.
And then you wake up screaming because you have a killer shoe salesman in a book about genetically altered homicidal butterflies.
Not that this has ever happened to me or anything.
Because I outline.
Lately though, I've noticed a disturbing trend:
I get my outline all meticulously planned, and then about forty pages in, I have to ditch it because the breadcrumb trail left by the words takes me elsewhere.
This usually happens right after the opening murder in one of my Kate London Mysteries. I go down the story track, following my outline like it’s I-75 headed right to Florida, and something doesn’t feel right. Being stubborn as all get out, I keep going for several weeks. Or, more honestly, I avoid writing because I am stuck, write a little and get aggravated, whine a lot, and stare at the computer screen. Eventually I get moving and write through it.
Once I do that, I begin to realize I need to back up and try a different path. Then the words unlock and the story takes me. I throw out some scenes, back up and let the words lead for a while until I find the new path. Then I revise my outline, because, well:
I outline.
And because I just can't sleep with that shoe salesman in my head.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Isn't there a 12-step program for outliners?

As you might have guessed, I write by the seat of my pants. My "outline" consists of a paragraph or two about the story line, a few notes dashed across an eraseable white board, and a timeline scrawled on a printable monthly calendar. And, of course, there's the ever present and ever growing catalog of characters and backstory from previous books to keep me on track. I write the first chapter and the last chapter first, then pray to the goddess of muses, the ghost of Selma Diamond, to show me the trail of bloody bread crumbs through the woods.

Writing is like going to Grandma's house, there are as many paths to get there as there are writers.

Good post, Susan. It's always great to see how others are traveling the bumpy trail.

Joe Moore said...

". . . a book about genetically altered homicidal butterflies."

What a coincidence, Susan. I'm working on the exact same plot, only mine are moths. :-)

Because Lynn Sholes and I co-write our thrillers, we have to outline. There's on sense in TWO writers staring at computer screens with no direction to follow. We simply have to know where we're going. That's not to say we don't back up and take a detour now and them. But without that proverbial road map, we would still be spinning our wheels on our first novel rather than finishing up number 4. Good post.

G.M. Malliet said...

Susan - I outline, then once the outline starts to bear no resemblance to the story I'm writing, I ignore it. This starts to happen maybe halfway through the book.

But to start out, I need that safety net, too.

p.s. I can really relate to the whining. I do that a lot.

Mark Combes said...

Susan, much better post than Keith's! Who loves ya more than me Keith!?

Outlines are for sissies. That's my stand because, well, I don't outline. Okay, sissies might be too strong a characterization - but what I've found is that an outline, for me, is just a very short first draft. So, maybe I do outline? So maybe I'm a sissy?

Ah hell, just get it on paper...that's my biggest obstacle outline or no outline.

Nina Wright said...

Susan, you wrote, "I go down the story track, following my outline like it’s I-75 headed right to Florida, and something doesn’t feel right."

I think you just showed me why I wrestle with outlines : When I drive to Florida, I can't even stay on the interstate. I'm a blue-highways kind of driver, ever curious about what's down that curving one-lane road.

In fact, I'm commenting from Florida, and--as usual--I took the scenic route.

Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, I was working on a book about genetically altered homicidal shoe salesmen. Go figure.

I'm a seat-of-my-pants writer and when I did a book talk panel this summer at the Ann Arbor Festival of the Book, I was the only pantser in the bunch, which surprised me quite a bit.

The one time I tried to write a novel from an outline I ended up with a 100 page manuscript. Not good.

Keith Raffel said...

The shoe salesman in that photo looks GUILTY!

Mark. Of course, Susan's post was better. What's your point?

Mark Combes said...


Just giving you the "high hard one" as they say!

I was going to respond to your post yesterday but I got distracted. I'll give my two cents (and that's exactly what it's worth) right now...

Susan Goodwill said...

I love Sue Ann's comment about writing the first and last chapters then working her way through the woods. It's like you flew to Florida, but you have to drive back to get your luggage.
Joe, weren't you working on the drag queen with the exploding wig when I was? Now the homicidal lepidopterans.
I see a trend here.
Oh, and it really was a nice post Keith, honest.

Felicia Donovan said...

I just checked and the seat of my pants are definitely well-worn, but that could also be because of my fat...

All I can think of when someone says "outline" is the rule about coloring within the lines. I couldn't do that, either. No outline for me, just a few notes about characters and back story to keep me consistent, and off we go to story land where anything can happen and I'm usually the last one to know about it.

G.M. Malliet said...

Felicia - Just the thought of doing that with a fictional story scares me. I can only do the fly-seat-pants thing with a non-fiction piece.

Bill Cameron said...

I'm a centrist on this matter. I generally set out to outline, but I get impatient and start writing. Then I figure out I've written myself into a corner and go back to the outline, work on it some more. But the lure of the blank page calls me, and well, you get the picture.

Sue Ann's approach of writing the first and last chapter first is what I did with Lost Dog. It helped it have a target, though as it happened, I wrote THREE last chapters. I finally decided which one was the actual last chapter after I'd gotten through about three drafts.

Currently, I'm working on short stories only, and I find an outline much more necessary. My novel-length stuff is so character driven that a detailed outline would probably only be modestly helpful anyway. Short stories seem to hinge on plot more, and working out the details ahead of time feels more pragmatic.

At least until I decide otherwise.

Felicia Donovan said...

Gin, I hear you and in my dream world, I'd have all the time in the world to outline, plot, mull and ponder. The reality is that I have about an hour (maybe two) a day to write. If I spent all that time outlining, I'd never get the actual writing done.

As this blog shows, everyone has a different approach. Whatever method works, go for it! The only thing that matters is that we keep cranking out these masterpieces...well, that and chocolate.

Which reminds me. Keith, sorry I didn't comment on your blog, but I couldn't find a way to work chocolate into my comments. No chocolate, no comment.