Sunday, January 9, 2011

On outlines and ideas

I'm especially productive today, despite the Colts game. This is my fourth significant blog update of the day (although by the time this is actually finished and posted, it will probably be Sunday and not Saturday). My previous posts have ranged from why my writing process is like Reggie Miller, ideas for covers for a couple of books I'm working on that will never see the light of day, and my thoughts on the Colts in the playoffs (turns out the second list is more on-target, unfortunately).

I've tweeted a little too much today and I also spent some time sending out query letters to literary agents. I really intended to do some creative writing today, but I also felt the urge to do some querying. Since it's something I don't particularly enjoy, I thought I'd better do it while I felt like it. Writing a query letter is basically office work. You pick your agent, tailor your letter to them, quadruple-check their submission guidelines, and allow your mouse to hover over the "send" button for a full minute before you actually click it. I think I sent out four of them today.

So that's my day so far. It had been a good day, until the Colts' special teams collapsed. There's nothing worse than losing a game you should've won.


Anyway, the purpose of this blog post...and yes, I realize I'm burying the lead to share my thoughts on how I organize my writing. As I mentioned earlier today, my writing process can be sporadic. The organization of my writing, however, often works differently. A story idea starts in my head, either inspired by something I've read or seen. Sometimes, I see a call for submissions to an open anthology series and think, "Hey, I can come up with something for that!"

The next step is to bring out a spiral-bound notebook. Typing is great and I can brainstorm ideas with the best of them while behind the keyboard, but there's something magical about putting a pen to paper. A blank page on a computer screen seems daunting, cold, and antiseptic; the cursor a constant, flashing reminder that you must do something right now. The cursor is flickering in constant, undead motion...a metronome for literary input.

Then there's the notebook page. Its white pages are unassuming pools of endless possibilities, its blue, college-rule lines practically smile at you as you bring a ballpoint pen into place. Instead of the perfectly straight, identical letters that you type on the screen, your handwriting reflects your personality in misshapen letters that provide a glimpse into your writing soul. Maybe your writing has a slant, maybe you print, maybe you write in all caps. You put hearts above your "i's," you cross your "t's" with graceful, wavy lines. Your "l's" are fat, your cursive "s's" have a crisp point at their apex.

Everything seems wide open on notebook paper.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a superhero anthology. You see, I like superheroes. I'm not an avid comic book reader, but I'm very fond of comic book movies and cartoons. So I had the idea that I would put together a series of unrelated superhero stories, just for the fun of it. After the idea came into my head, I grabbed my trusty notebook, lay in bed, and quickly churned out 20 different ideas for stories. Of those 20 ideas, ten of them have been turned into short stories.

One of these ideas spawned a story simply titled "The Journalist."

Here's the original note (I would scan the notebook page, but I'm lazy and will transcribe instead):

Journalist follows hero and tries to deduce secret identity -- unique style, research and backstory -- can't be done from scratch

Honestly, there's not really much there other than a concept. The story would be about a newspaper or TV reporter who is obsessed with finding out the secret identity of a superhero. The note on "unique style" probably isn't really that unique. It simply meant at the time that I wanted to use a framing/flashback structure to tell the story.

"Can't be done from scratch" means that sitting down in front of the keyboard and pounding the story out simply wouldn't work in this case. I wanted the story to have an authentic feel; I wanted the journalist in the story to follow a trail of evidence over a period of several months as he tried to piece together the secret identity of a superhero. He would have to go through records, conduct interviews, connect the dots, and maybe even follow a money trail. To get all the pieces to fit together, I had to know what those pieces were in advance.

So, while I sometimes can just sit in front of the keyboard and let a story flow through me once I write down a story idea, in this case I needed an outline. I needed to know what happened, when it happened, and in what order it happened. Looking at it now, the outline for the story isn't that long, just two handwritten pages with notes about the story structure and the key events that the journalist finds to build his case.

The story begins in a bar, where the reporter, Freddy, confronts rich, powerful socialite Meg MacGuire, who is more or less a female riff on Tony Stark. That's the frame for the story. From there, we go into flashbacks of Freddy's research and then return to the bar for interstitial sections where Freddy begins to press Meg about information he's learned about her.

It looks something like this:

BAR CONFRONTATION/Freddy presses Meg

RESEARCH PHASE/Six months before/Freddy's first hint

BAR CONFRONTATION/Freddy asks Meg why she's a superhero

RESEARCH PHASE/Five months before/Freddy's research goes nowhere

The story bounces back and forth between the evening of their confrontation (when Freddy is revealing to Meg that he knows about her secret life as a hero) and the steps leading up to that confrontation (Freddy's mounting research).

The funny thing is that the outline contains no names and few specifics about the characters, just concepts and a few beats about each character. The reporter, of course, is hard-driving, obsessive, and determined to prove himself right. The socialite/hero is dismissive, evasive, and then eventually amused by Freddy's theory. The outline also includes a concept for the story's resolution. Also, as I look back on the outline, I realize that I didn't use everything in it! Even as a more specific road map for the story, it's still just a guideline.

Some authors are obsessive outliners; they'll type out detailed, multi-page outlines with every event, scene, and story beat included. They'll have pages and pages of notes and detailed biographies about their characters. And, as the work gets longer--say, a novel instead of a short story--the notes and outlines become more and more involved. It's a great way to keep things straight when you're juggling so much information.

For my longer works, and I'm referring really to my novels, I have pages and pages of detailed notes and character bios. One of my books includes several thousand words of meta-fiction (newspaper articles set in the universe, character biographies, character journals, magazine features, etc.) that had to be exhaustively organized by date. All of that information is in my trusty notebook with calendar days and dates, birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. Another book includes a couple of alien religions, so I have notes on basic tenets and principles of those religions, how they differ, important "historic" events and how each religion views them, and even a few selected "verses" from their holy books.

Those things are in addition to the actual outline of the books and their respective plots.

Again, I like to write all of these things by hand; it just seems to flow better. If I try to do it by computer, I feel like I'm doing a research paper for college. Plus, I'd rather flip through my notebook looking for my notes than have 18 different windows open on my computer screen...although I'll tell you, a good piece of software with timeline-mapping capabilities (and I'm sure something like that exists) would come in handy sometimes.

I'll make one more point about outlines and then I'll finish up. As I mentioned while talking about my outline for the short story "The Journalist," an outline is a road map; not everything in it will make it to the finished product. That's where the flow of writing comes in. While I'm writing the story, other ideas will spring to mind; maybe some characters become unnecessary to the plot and are transformed into composites or eliminated entirely; maybe it makes more sense for another character to perform a certain action. The outline is a plan...and like all plans, it needs to be adaptable to fit the field conditions. Don't get so obsessed with sticking to your outline that your writing suffers.

Let the map start you on your journey, but don't be alarmed if you miss an exit along the way. Eventually, you'll get there.