Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Justine Musk | Posted on 20-06-2007
By Justine Musk
One of the most common questions people ask me about writing – other than “where do you get your ideas” (or, as my mother-in-law once put it, “How does a nice trophy wife like you come up with stuff like this?” I assume she was joking, or at least half-joking, because that question still cracks me up, although when I share it with others they tend to look slightly horrified ) – is “Do you outline?”
And one of the things that annoys me about talking about writing is that so many people tend to come down so definitively on one side or the other.
If you don’t outline then you risk aimless, self-indulgent writing and months or years of wasted time and you’re a fool!
If you do outline, then you risk rigid, formulaic, predictable fiction and you’re a fool!
Ultimately when we talk about outlines, we’re talking about process, and the process behind novel-writing varies from writer to writer and book to book.
I made an experimental decision not to use an outline for the novel I’m working on right now. The result so far as been 100 pages of the strongest first-draft writing I’ve done in a long time. But to get to the point where I could feel confident writing a novel without an outline required many, many years of writing with an outline.
Outlines have worked for and against me. It’s important for me to understand why.
I outline because plot and structure don’t come easily to me. So I get insecure. It was not enough for me to vaguely know how the thing would end 300 pages from now; I wanted to hold the shape and structure whole in my head before sitting down to write the first page.
The benefit of an outline is that it requires so much thought and happily musing, meandering note-taking that once I was finally working off a completed outline, I knew I would complete the book itself. I’m not one of those writers who has a lot of half-finished manuscripts languishing in a basement somewhere (since our Los Angeles home lacks a basement) – from as early as my teens I took great pride in the fact that even my crappiest manuscripts were whole and entire in their crappiness. So I not only learned about navigating middles and endings – tough to do if you always quit 50 pages into a novel — I also developed a sense of myself as someone who not only starts novels but finishes them.
This helped me in the early part of my marriage. BLOODANGEL took so long to write and involved so much lulling, musing, backtracking and rewriting that my husband worried that I would give up altogether and sit on my laurels – or rather, on his laurels, which by that point had become shockingly financially lucrative – and then go somewhere nice for lunch. When he raised his concerns – repeatedly — I could laugh and swat them away. I knew I would finish.
So an outline lays out the bones of the story. You can take in with one sweeping glance how one thing leads to another leads to another, in a chain of action and reaction and proaction and ever-building consequence, while the stakes get higher and the characters get in deeper.
And an outline keeps me on track, particularly important since I’m happy to lose myself in the kind of backstory and tangents and details that turn out to be interesting to no one but me. Once I hit the bleak, thorny stretch of novel where you often feel so disoriented, muddled and lost – otherwise known as ‘the middle’ – an outline pointed me back to the path that led home to the end.
Sometimes this was a good thing.
Sometimes this was the problem.
I was struck by something Josh Waitzkin said about his success in the chess world. Josh – the subject of the movie SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, which I loved and have watched several times – was an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. In his book THE ART OF LEARNING, he links his style of play to his personality and recognizes a major advantage:
“It is my nature to revel in apparent chaos.”
Unlike his child competitors, who relied on sophisticated opening gambits to win the game, then began to lose confidence and fall apart the longer and more complicated the game became, Josh liked to play the edge, found joy and interest there. He didn’t mind losing some advantage to his opponent in the beginning. He knew he could prevail by guiding his games “into positions of tremendous complexity with the confidence that I would be able to sort through the mayhem more effectively than my opponents. I often sensed a logical thread to positions that seemed irrational….” (p 41).
I myself do not play chess. (My husband, however, plays computer games, and sometimes I like to watch. For a few minutes.) But Josh’s observation made me immediately think of all those movies and novels where the writer sets up an excellent first act – and then the story goes into decline, falls apart, disappoints.
Some of my practice novels failed for these kinds of reasons. I set up intriguing premises – that went nowhere. I was like one of those chess players with a good opening game that then fell apart. It was partly because I didn’t know the rest of the game as well as I needed to — had yet to absorb the knowledge of craft in order to truly work it – and also because I had an issue with artistic control. I wanted to dictate my process, instead of respecting the ebb and flow of the story as it evolved deep in my mind.
This is the thing about outlines. If I’m not careful, they give me an illusion of control that turns out to be just that – an illusion.
I used to think that, to be a writer, I needed to write pages of my novel everyday. I’ve since learned that this isn’t true. A lot of novel-writing takes place away from the computer screen, in that mysterious elusive territory of the unconscious – the ‘undermind’, as I call it. I can sit in front of my laptop for four hours and manage five pages. Or I can jot down some ideas, notes about the scene I plan to write – perhaps sketch it out briefly – and then turn it all over to my undermind and go out and have a life (or try to). Later, I return to the laptop and write five pages in what feels like minutes – and the pages are richer, deeper, my undermind serving up a new twist or insight or cool detail that I didn’t even know I had in me. I don’t know how that process works, but I know that it does work, and in order to write well – and efficiently, since my life now requires I use every moment in the day or else I’m sunk – I need to trust it.
The outline vs the undermind.
The conscious vs the unconscious.
The controlled, planned-out approach vs the freefalling leaps of intuition.
In recent years I noticed a pattern to my spats of ‘writer’s block’. I would be writing well and easily for many days in a row, the pages would be piling up and then – bam. Roadblock. Sometimes I would surrender to it, go days without writing anything, and then a lightbulb popped off in my head, usually while I was working out or driving –activities that lull me into a contented zoning-out while engaging in forward motion, a condition my undermind seems to quite like. I’d realize a new story insight, a change in direction. Perhaps I’d realize that the scene I thought I had to write I shouldn’t even write at all. Then the writing started moving again and I’d be humming along.
Sometimes I took a different approach. I would use the outline to grit my way through the writing of scenes that did not want to be written. Then, later, I would come back to those same parts that caused me trouble – during revision, often at the agent or editor’s request. It became clear that this was the point in the novel where the novel itself had gone wrong. Here, the outline and undermind had parted ways, formed a fork in the road – and, by relying on the outline, instead of respecting the STOP sign my undermind was throwing up, I had made the wrong choice and would pay for it. The only way I could make things right again was by backtracking to the fork and dumping pages of material — in the most recent case about three quarters of a 90,000 word novel – in order to try again. This time in the proper direction, inventing a new outline that respected and listened to the voice of the story as that voice steadily revealed itself.
So I learned this: there’s a difference between using the outline to guide my undermind, and using it as a means of control, forcing my narrative into something that turns out wrong and unnatural. In order to learn how to properly use my original outline, I had to learn when to give that outline up. But doing this seemed a plunge into uncertainty and tension – that feeling of being muddled and lost, trapped inside your own story – and often I refused to do it even when I sensed I should.
“It was my nature to revel in apparent chaos…”
“…guide games into positions of tremendous complexity with the confidence I would be able to sort through the mayhem…”
But when you surrender the original outline, you free up your mind to better ideas. The thing about the original outline is that you wrote it before you started writing your novel. Before you started exploring and learning the novel in the way you can only do by actually writing the damn thing – not by talking about it, not by jotting notes and doing ‘research’. It’s common knowledge that when brainstorming, your best ideas will not be your early ideas. The best ideas work their way up from a much deeper part of your mind; they require some time and thought and patience to let surface. They also require some trust. Trust enough, when writing a novel, to step off the edge of the cliff. To plunge into complexity and mayhem with no clear idea of how you’ll get out of it. To write calmly and confidently from that position of apparent chaos while the undermind finds the logical thread leading you to a triumphant endgame.
The novel I’m working on now – called SHADOW HILL– was originally intended to be a novella, which I figured would be a good length for my little experiment in writing a story without a detailed outline. I wanted to dream and mull and muse the beast along, follow my undermind wherever it took me, and see what resulted. Since this is very much a work-in-progress I can’t tell you exactly how this turns out; ask me later. But so far it feels pretty good.
My strategy of navigation involves a lot of rereading, paying attention to things that in previous projects I have blithely ignored — a too-prominent moment with a seemingly toss-off character, a recurring image, a suggestive piece of dialogue that opens up, if I would only let it, a new, exciting storyline. It’s not that I was oblivious to these things. My mind tagged them for what they were – signals from the undermind — but then I brushed past them, eager to stay in control and keep working the outline, which always seems easier than digging deep and readjusting my course. Inevitably, though, someone whose editorial opinion I trust would point out what I already suspected but did not want confirmed: “Your story is somewhere back here. Right here. This is where you lost the trail….or where the trail lost you.”
Let me give two examples.
During the writing of the first act of SHADOW HILL, I came across in my non-writing life an article about the evolution of the paparazzi in the age of the Internet, where hunger for images is obsessive and all-consuming and extremes are required to get the money shot. My undermind worked this into the story, which is set in Los Angeles and deals to some extent with the otherworld of celebrity. My protagonist and her romantic interest have a moment with a pap. The moment deepened, took on unexpected detail: I begin to see this pap in my head: he wasn’t speaking Italian like I’d originally thought, but Portuguese, because this guy was a hardcore dude with a beat-up face from the slums of Brazil who has a long-running adversarial relationship with the romantic interest and has made a lot of money off him already. Because I was indulging and exploring this moment, the scene – inspired by the article I’d read – became weighted in a way that made it ‘important’ which was not my intention. Instead of ignoring it, though, I posed myself a new question: “Okay, is there some way to use this, to make this pay off later? How can I justify keeping this material when it comes time to revise and streamline?” Later, when my undermind served up an answer, a big chunk of what has now grown into a novel clinked into place. By letting that moment grow, I found a ‘logical thread’ linking up a significant subplot to impact on the main plot.
Another issue involved my protagonist’s visions of – and conversations with – her dead brother. This book is not, however, a ghost story; it’s an urban fantasy that pivots around a hidden world that has nothing to do with ghosts. And yet the brother was there on page one and provides foreshadowing and tension to keep things compelling while I gradually introduce my vulnerable ex-academic bad-girl protagonist to the hidden world lurking in westside LA. So I knew the brother had to stay. (Besides, I like him.) I also knew that this was a problem. An urban fantasy novel requires a huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. You, the writer, only get one such suspension. One other-reality, hidden-world, element of the fantastic, whatever you want to call it: the reader is willing to roll with you assuming you establish the ‘rules’ of this reality and ground it within the everyday contemporary world.
My other-world in this novel concerns the true nature of certain celebrity characters my protagonist encounters. Throwing a haunting into the mix was, I sensed, too much. Too contrived. If I couldn’t find some kind of link between these two elements – so that the reason she sees her dead brother is directly related to the story’s ‘otherworld’ instead of incidental to it – I’d have to lose him. The easy solution – the original-outline solution – was to trot out that catch-all device of ambiguity, imply that perhaps she’s imagining him, he’s her way of interrogating herself or warning herself. But I wasn’t satisfied with this. Honest ambiguity can be great and necessary. False or lazy ambiguity is something else entirely: it’s the writer taking the easy way out, being obscure and mysterious and pseudo-artsy in order to cover up flaws in conception and craft. Falling back on some “is the ghost real or imaginary?” thing would be a cop-out. I needed a different idea.
So I wrote the first part of the book while absently mulling this over, posing the question and feeding it to the undermind. And when I did figure out the relationship between the dead brother and aforementioned celebrities, it was a different feeling from the paparazzi example above. The story itself remains unchanged. What happened, though, is that a new dimension to a particular set of characters opened up: the paranormal nature that forms the heart of this story acquired a power and originality that, I think – I hope – will set this book apart from the many other urban fantasies already out there. We will see. But right now, it feels good. It feels like I am writing in the right direction.
Although I am still relatively young – especially since female writers are allowed to age more slowly than, say, elite gymnasts or supermodels or Los Angeles trophy wives – I have been novel-writing for twenty years now. Some of those years were more productive than others, of course, but what strikes me is how long it takes to get a true sense of what the hell you’re doing, especially since the process itself will change from book to book. You don’t just need to learn to write a good novel, you need to learn to write the novel you’re wrestling with right now.
For me, an outline can serve as a teacher, introducing me to the basic movements of the novel that I need to learn. Perhaps a difference between a mediocre novel and a good novel, or a good novel and a great one, has to do with learning that story so well that you absorb it right into your bones. Rather like a dancer who learns her choreography so well with such skill that she transcends it: when you watch her, you don’t see her thinking through her technique, you see her becoming the dance and the dance becoming the music. Knowledge, intuition and technique come together, become something greater than the sum of their parts – not just art, but the fine, compelling kind.
When the writer truly learns the story, becomes in touch with the flow of the story, the outline itself becomes part of that flow. As the story moves and grows and changes, the writer steps to the outline to gain a long-range, heightened view, adapting and adjusting all the while. Then back into the story, moving farther and deeper, gathering new, intimate knowledge of the terrain only previously glimpsed.
Or at least, this is how I’ve come to understand my own process, given the nature of my personality. I am highly intuitive. I also appreciate a good plan. For me, the question of whether to outline or not sets up a false dichotomy: my own personal answer falls somewhere in between. I need to outline, but only if that outline keeps reinventing itself as my intuition sees fit for it to do. Otherwise I get stuck and my game breaks down.
The answer you figure out for yourself – as you absorb the lessons of others as well as from your own growing mountain of experience – will say a lot about who you are, not just as a writer but as a person. That, of course, is the fun of it.
— Justine Musk