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Thursday, April 22, 2010


SEAT OF THE PANTS vs ROAD MAP

There are two schools of thought on writing.

School of thought #1: Outline before writing a single word of your story. I’m talking detailed outline. Ridiculously detailed. You (the writer) should know exactly how long the car chase should be on page 35. You should know if the guy gets the girl or if the girl gets the guy before you write the first line of their snappy dialogue in the Paris Cafe.

Some believers in outlining are screenwriting gurus like Robert McKey STORY and Blake Snyder Save The Cat.

School of thought #2: Screenwriters seem to hold to school of thought #1. Novelists are more free wheeling. Like Stephen King one of the most underrated (yes I said underrated) writers around. He says that writing is like uncovering a fossil. In a first draft you should have no idea where you’re going. Just start writing and see what happens. Let the characters drive the story and they’ll surprise you and the rest of the audience.

Believers in seat of the pants: Chuck Palahniuck, Stephen King, E.L. Doctorow.

I used to believe strongly in the second line of thinking. But here’s the problem: There is so much to do in first draft. The writer creates setting, tone, dialogue, character, and then the plot. If the writer doesn’t know where he’s going he can have a mess on his hands.

You might this can’t happen to you. You might think: I’m better then that.

That’s what I thought. I thought my characters were good enough and my writing was strong (and by strong I think I mostly mean nuanced and bizarre) enough to fix it. I started writing without a strong plan. I was like Columbus sailing off without a map to trade spices. I said to myself, “I think India is that way, and if it’s not who knows maybe I’ll get lucky and discover a continent. Maybe someday they’ll even name a controversial holiday after me.”

I survived for a while. But in while writing my third novel this cost me six months. Six months of writing around 50,000 words that I just had to throw away. And you would think it was painful to throw away that many words. But truthfully, it was freeing. Because I knew how big a hole I’d dug and the only way out was to blow it up. I don’t even know if you can blow up a hole but that’s what I did anyway.

I had to start over and this time created an outline and really good novel. But I learned my lesson. It was like the D.C. Talk song I loved so dearly in eighth grade, “Some people have to learn the hard way.” That was me. I was Toby Mac taking my lumps. So now I tell my fellow writers: Have an outline. Have a plan about where your story is going. Know how the first act is going to end and what the hero must do to obtain his unreachable goal.

But does that mean school of thought #2 is worthless? No, I’m not that cynical. Quick example: The writers on LOST have talked about how Michael Emerson (AKA Henry Gayle who became Ben Linus even though he looks much more like a Henry Gayle) was just supposed to guest star. But his performance was so incredible that they wrote recurring role, and he became the show’s most interesting character. At least until season 6 where he just wanders around like a stray puppy, but seriously before that he was like evil, I mean Darth Vader evil, those buggy eyes still haunt me.

So what I’m saying is this: Have a plan. Have an outline but don’t be a slave to it. You’re the writer not the outline. If something worked in the outline but isn’t working on the pages, fix it. Leave room to discover. Create. Write. Because all writing is really by the seat of the pants—isn’t it?

2 comments:

Gin said...

I'm a number #2 kinda gal but then I haven't published a book yet and I'm stuck at 100 pages.
BTW, Dean Koontz is a #2 person, too. So the idea can't be totally discarded.
But I'll try adding an outline and see if it gets me outta my hole cuz I'M not throwing out 100 pages. LOL

drg said...

Rob: I hope to read one of your books soon! There are two ways to learn, mistakes or mentors, if is less painful with mentors. I see you as a worthwhile mentor and I learned from your blog today.
Dillard R. Griffith M.D.