Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More Mad Rush, Please

By Sophie

Are you an outliner or do you wing it?

Like many of the other Criminal Minds, I've tried both. Early in my writing development, I had these binders I would fill with timelines and tables and character sketches and pictures torn from magazines. I went to workshops where I learned to color-code my prose, to put it on notecards, to use software to organize scenes, to "interview" my characters, and so on.  

One of my favorite traditions from that time was one that my friend Lisa and I started. We both had young kids back then, so we had art supplies lying around the house, including a roll of butcher paper and about ten thousand colored markers. Whenever we started a new book, we used to tear off six-foot lengths of paper and spend a day plotting out our work-in-progress, annotating with post-it notes and drawing all kinds of arrows and diagrams and notes in the margins.

Those were fun days. Sometimes we'd go on a weekend retreat and pin those charts up on the walls of the cabin or hotel where we were holed up, and from time to time we'd get up from our laptops and go track our progress against the chart. Looking back on that phase now, I think that - for me - the chart was more of a confidence builder than anything else. It was tangible proof that I had my story under control, that I could reduce it to a flow chart with a beginning and an end and a middle.

I often say that fear is the writer's greatest enemy, and looking back I think I had a lot of fear back then. I was not convinced I could write a full and balanced story, and sketching its skeleton into an outline gave me confidence.

Nowadays, the outline - what there is of it - lives only in my mind. I might make a few pages of notes, but these are very free-form and unstructured, closer to the mad scrawlings of a fevered dreamer than an engineer's careful schematic. That's because I've found something even more addictive than the feeling of holding the reins of my story - and that's the feeling of letting go.
Somewhere between ordinary world and dream world lies this meta state that is a place of intuition, a conduit from the soul to the page, and being in that state is like standing in the violently swirling mist of a thunderous waterfall. You're of the process even if you aren't driving the process - and if that sounds a little organic-voo-doo-y, sorry, I plead guilty.
It's a mad rush, and I could no sooner exist in that state all the time as I could exist on whisky and black coffee, but it's exhilarating as all hell, and it has its place in story creation. It's the place of broad strokes, of first drafts, of shadows of characters whose details can be added later during the painstaking revision process.
I can't say I'll never write from an outline again. I know less and less about the process of writing as time goes on - or rather, it grows more mysterious to me, the more I attempt to learn. But for now, winging it suits me just fine.


Shane Gericke said...

I love how you put this, Sophie, with the pipeline to the soul and all. It's far more eloquent than anything I could attempt to explain this mystical "thing" that happens between brain and fingers.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ah, Sohpie, so lovely. As usual. My mind worked exactly the other way. My first book--free-flowing, whatever, let's just see what happens. It worked, and I loved it. But as I sold more books, I began to feel the need to make sure I knew where I was going.

Not that I necessarily went there!But once I had the outline, I felt safer taking detours and tangents, because I knew I could get back to the road.

Or maybe the outline was like my magic feather. I felt safe as long as I knew it was there..then I could take risks.

Jen Forbus said...

A question I always like to ask writers is if a character has ever surprised him/her. I love when writers tell me that they follow where the characters take them. Because as a reader, I'm doing the same thing, and it makes me feel like there's a connection between me and the writer. We both followed that same path with the character. And most often, those characters we both followed are the BEST characters...the strongest, most realistic, most dynamic. They're allowed to live and that is SO cool!

Sophie Littlefield said...

but it's almost nicer that it *is* mystical don't you think Shane? :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Hank, I've learned to be careful to say "I always" or "I never" because I just keep changing my mind all the time! And I totally get that "need to make sure where I was going"

....and Jen, sometimes I'll read over a draft and think to myself "where the heck did *that* come from"? I wonder if there are elves in my brain sometimes.

Or, as Jennifer Crusie says (I think it's her anyway) "Thanks to the girls in the basement" :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Beautiful as always, Soph. :) And I loved your 6 word memoir, courtesy of Jen!!

A little over ten days to go ... ;)