Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

but which story? March 15, 2007

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 12:41 am

Just returned from a brief trip from Japan, complete with a nasty virus. Not the kind that will have you snuggling in bed with a loved one cooing over you, but the kind that has you dripping, sneezing, and rubbing vaseline on a nose rubbed raw by kleenex.

Nothing, however, like 9 hours on a plane for a bit of thinking. My laptop battery is only good for some 2 hours, which meant I had a cool 7 hours to, well, stew. Since my main novel is – well, shall we say, “coherent”? – I’ve been dying to start on a new project. So I tried my hand at outlining.

One of my writing reference books, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, has a decent guide on outlining. He divides writers into two categories, outliners and non-outliners, and acknowledged every shade of grey in between. Where you fall is a matter of preference. I’ve already tried being a non-outliner – I gave birth to my main novel during Nanowrimo 2003. It’s full of false starts, frustrations, dropped plot lines, and plot lines developed half-way through (note to self: weave this concept throughout!). It was, quite simply, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Outlining seems like a good way to circumvent some of that.

So I flipped through the book trying to find my own flavor. There are the Borg type outliners, who must have everything outlined and worked out in full detail. Okay, so not me. He also suggests a method using index cards where you write down scenes as they come to you and then you play around with their order, inserting new scenes as necessary. With the “headlights” system, you write only as much as you can see ahead – so you jot notes about chapter one, revealing a certain bit of information, then jot notes about chapter two using the info you’ve just revealed, and so forth. Hmm, this seems more along the lines of what I, who can scarcely plan what to have for dinner, can handle.

Most promising, I thought, was the narrative outline. You write your plot as a brief story: “One day Jim was walking to the store when he found a dead body. Shocked, he called the police, only to have the police arrest him…” It immediately gets you thinking about your novel as a story, and not as an accumulation of scenes.

More advice that sounds valuable (I’m still testing it out): know what you what the story is. Bell suggests writing the back cover copy – you know, that little blurb on the back that makes you either take up the book or return it disdainfully – well in advance, and keep referring to it to focus you. In journalism it’s the same thing – know what your story is. Write the meat of it in one or two sentences, post it on your monitor, and keep your eye on it. The key to good writing is focus.

Okay, but here’s my problem with all of this. First, I think in scenes. The seed of a novel for me is usually a brief image – two people locked in combat, say – and then I’ll start wondering who they are and how they got there, etc. Or I’ll want to evoke a feeling or idea with my story – I want to write a story about the sadness of sacrificing friendship for a higher purpose, for example. Such things, unfortunately, are ideas, not stories. So I try to work out scenarios that might evoke the sort of feelings I’m going for. But then I get stuck. There are infinite possibilities, but which one is the right one? Which one is the right story, the one that should be told? I could have Jim be a dour man, which means he might not give money to Lisa, which means Lisa can’t get her medicine which means…. but what if Jim is generous and wants to give the money but Lisa is too proud and won’t take it and then… well, you get the picture.

I suppose this is where the focus comes in. Remember what I’m trying to write about, where I’m trying to take the story. So I got one good outline written for a pretty simple, dare I say unoriginal idea for a novella that I’ve been toying with all set and ready to go, and I really really tried to get an outline for a more nebulous story I only have wisps of. But that didn’t come together. Ah well, perhaps for another plane trip!

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