Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Outlining vs. Winging It

After 40-plus years of writing books I realize I make an outline for non-fiction and pretty much wing it for fiction.

That’s because there’s little or no room for surprises in non-fiction so the research and outline matter. A lot.

But with fiction . . . For me, there’s far less chance of an entertaining story if I’m locked into a “Section I, Subsection 1, Sub-subsection A” approach. One of the great joys of novel writing is having a character suddenly say or do something you had no idea he or she was going to say or do.

(Yes, that sounds crazy. And, yes, a lot of novelists report it happening. And really liking it.)

I suppose for non-fiction it’s rely on a GPS or use a map or ask someone for specific directions.

For fiction, it’s . . . road trip!

When a Character Refuses to Obey You
This may not have happened to you yet but I wanted to put it near the beginning of this book so that you’ll recognize it when it does happen. If it happens. Don’t be frightened but there may come a time when one of your characters—even a reliable one, one you really like—will say or do something on his or her own. 
It’s . . . aliiiiiiive!
I’ll give an example. In my novel Pope Bob, two recovering alcoholic priests are talking about how their drinking influenced their lives and their ministry. The older of the two, the one who’s helping the younger, says: 
“During that particular blackout, I missed my mother’s rosary on Tuesday night and funeral on Wednesday morning. I was to be the celebrant. I was going to say the Mass. One of my sisters never forgave me and I never held that against her. She was right. Three years later she was killed in an automobile accident and hadn’t set foot in a church since Mom’s funeral. Wanted nothing to do with a religion that had a priest like me. And still I drank.” 
I, the author and creator of that character, was astounded! I had, and have, no idea where that came from. Yes, it came from me but . . . . What he shared was so sad! There’s been nothing in my life like that. Nothing I recall reading about that’s similar to it.
But there it was. 
In some ways, writing a novel is nothing more, and nothing less, than putting some people into a situation and watching them try to get out of it. And eavesdropping on them as they do it.

More on “outline or not?” at NY Book Editors here.

(Did Charles Dickens really say “stinking outline”? Well, no. The quote, about a play, is: “I am quite satisfied that nobody can have heard what I mean to do with the different characters in the end, inasmuch as at present I don’t quite know, myself.”)

Just keep writing.