Ruben Bolling at Tom the Dancing Bug posted some really interesting thoughts on the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and how it broke from the usual Coen Brothers mold. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I recommend you read it. While you’re at it, poke around on the blog. Ruben is a brilliant cartoonist and I’m always excited when a new Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon is posted.
I tested some new methods with my new novel-in-progress (currently well past half completed, thank you very much) but my work stalled and I found myself returning to the techniques that worked with my first novel – especially the outline.
I’m a big believer in outlining a novel, and I’m often surprised to hear other writers decry the practice as too structured, or as a betrayal of the characters or the art form. More than one writer has told me how they prefer to “let the characters guide them.” They write in linear sequence from beginning of book to end and refuse any kind of outline, allowing the plot to go where it will as the characters surprise them with their decisions. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the writers I’ve heard advocating this approach are also avid (role playing) gamers.
I see a few problems with this approach. For one, it leads to overlong, plodding stories that often don’t seem to go anywhere, or linger too long in one scene because the author doesn’t yet know where they are headed. More importantly to me, I like a certain something in the plot – call it symmetry, poetry, foreshadowing, call it what you will – that can only be achieved when the writer knows the end of the story at the beginning.
Most importantly of all, an outline keeps me writing. If I don’t have one, I can spend an entire writing session at my computer (and have often done so) staring at a blank screen and wondering what I’m doing. With an outline in hand, even on days when I’m feeling uninspired I can look over my notes, see that my characters are at point [h] and need to get to point [i], and there’s what I’m writing that day. If I need to skip ahead, I can look for a section of the plot that excites me, let’s say points [s] through [v], and sink my teeth into that, without fear that my characters will “make some decision” that diverts them away from point [s] entirely. Continue Reading