Friday, February 19, 2010

The Great Debate

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Some debates are just plain fun:
John Lennon or Paul McCartney (yes, Sharon, we know)
Davy Jones or Mickey Dolenz (or Michael Smith or Peter Tork)
Old Elvis or young Elvis
Ginger or Mary Ann
Capt. James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard
Best Bond - Sean Connery or Daniel Craig (or Pierce Brosnan, or Roger Moore...)
Best Angel - Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson or Jaclyn Smith
Goobers or Raisinets

Debates can define us:
Dog-person or Cat-person
Snowbird or beach bunny
Morning person or night-owl
Health nut or junk food junkie
Vegetarian or carnivore
Democrat or Republican
Glass half-empty or half-full
Cheerleader or skater-girl

For writers, I could add 'SOTP or outline'. This debate is the literary Mason-Dixon line, dividing the author camp into those who write by the 'Seat Of The Pants' and those who outline extensively in advance. Writers will tell you it's the way they're wired to write, and to do anything less is like putting a stubby golf pencil into the left hand of a right-handed person. It can be done, but it's not gonna be pretty.

I've tried it both ways, and I've always leaned toward being an outlining control freak. I created extensive character bios, personal timelines, family trees and plotted how to get from the title page to the end. I wrote chapter summaries and drew maps of homes and rooms and cut out widget people from magazines so I'd have a clear picture of my characters. And it all worked! There's absolutely nothing wrong with these tools. Even Tolkien drew maps to keep Frodo from wandering off the face of Middle Earth. But now I'm wondering whether it's the best fit for the manuscript I'm working on. Outlining just doesn't feel right. Is it possible to be ambidextrous in a literary sense?

There's an element of control in outlining that appeals to me. It's safe. The characters have a certain amount of freedom within established boundaries. Extensive plotting has its own economy which amounts to less time spent rewriting. It's a bit like having your trip planned out by AAA before you leave home so you don't worry about getting lost and having to stay at a crummy fleabag hotel. But, doesn't it make you wonder what surprises could be waiting in that unexpected layover?

Frankly, SOTP scares me to death. I once found myself three-quarters of the way through a manuscript and realized I had tangled a cat's-cradle of story lines into a huge knot. And, oh, the rewrites! (Can you tell I hate to rewrite?) But it felt magical to have the character take me by the hand and tell me her story. To have her push open a secret door and say 'look in here - bet you never thought of that.'

So, I've decided to trust my character's lead this time. It may be a winding road, but by the end of it, I'll know her pretty well. I'm sure I'll have to give her direction from time to time, or steer her clear of a distraction or two, but her story's worth telling and I'm going to listen close and type fast.

You probably already know which side of the SOTP/outline debate you're on. Do you think it's possible to do both, and have you tried it?


Lori Benton said...

Paul! Davy! No Elvis! Mary Ann! Bond? Raisinets! Dogs. Mornings. SOTP or outline... I fall somewhere in the middle. A conflict or inciting incident comes first.* Then the characters walk on stage and I stare at them, making extensive notes on their back stories, motivations, personalities, secrets. I see what choices they will probably make and that expands the plot into a rough outline, but most of the twists and turns are dictated by what I end up putting on the page each day. So there comes a moment when the writing has to begin. At some point I'll run ahead of the train again and lay more story tracks, then jump back on and stoke the engine for a while, then back to laying track. I like to have a general direction to aim for, even though I might have to alter that plan at some point down the line.

*Usually, but the line between character genesis and inciting incident is often blurred

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I've tried both and feel I'm currently having more "success" with the one I outlined. This isn't to say I'm not open to going back to SOMP writing. There's is something so freeing about that--top down, music blaring kind of writing.
~ Wendy

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I straddle both sides of the debate sadly. I have the bones of the story. Otherwise I get mired down and don't know what to do next. But it's all subject to change, and I've been known to take chase some wild hares. Then again I prefer rewrites to first drafts so that may have something to do with my willingness to experiment!

Nicole said...

Outlines, especially the extensive ones such as you described, put me back in the classroom. No thanks. I refuse. I did well in school but have no desire to continue in that environment. Zip, zero, nada.

It's SOTP for me all the way. I will make a note here and there of something I want to include if it comes to me before I can chronologically get there. I might know the end from the beginning (my only shot at being omniscient ;) ), but not always. And how I get there is always subject to change--or change direction.

It's an adventure. I usually have the title pretty quick after the characters show up, and they hang around in my head getting to know me before they allow me to write their stories. When they hold back, they want me to get lost for awhile. So I do. When I come back, they tell me more.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

For me, it's Paul, Mickey, no Elvis, Mary Ann, Jean-Luc, Pierce Brosnan, Kate & Raisinets. I'd love to say skater-girl, but that would be unbelievable.

Isn't it wonderful how God made us so completely and creatively different? What a relief that there's no right or wrong answer!

Patti Hill said...

Debbie, I love you too much to fight over Paul. We can share him.

And in case anyone wants to know, I do all the pre-writing Debbie talked about and I outline. About 2/3 of the way through the book, the outline must be trashed and a looser one constructed. Happens every time. But I still love my outlines. Mwah!

Anonymous said...

"But it felt magical to have the character take me by the hand and tell me her story. To have her push open a secret door and say 'look in here - bet you never thought of that.'

I've always had the character take me by the hand and tell me her story ... and when she pushes open a door and says,"look in here," it's almost always magical. Things happen I never could have plotted or planned. But this time around I'm working more closely to an outline, but I haven't locked myself in anymore than I have in the past. I know where I'm heading, and the adventure is in getting there. But, as Lori said, this time I've laid more track than usual.

I love that analogy, Lori. It's a great visual that will be with me from now on as I write.

GREAT post, Debbie. And, yes, it's PAUL, PAUL, PAUL. What else matters?!? (Been in the same geographical place with him three times!)

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Sean Connery. How can you not love a Scottish lisp?

And I am the poster child for the outlining-control-freaks. Although, I have learned that once I get a first draft down and have a clear trajectory of events, my characters do take me by the hand and lead me to unexpected surprises.

But without the road map we walk in circles.

However, I will add that outlining works so well because of my season of life. I have four boys, ages six and under so my writing time is often measured in minutes, not hours. And it is very helpful to look at an outline and not have to wonder where the story will go.

I like to think that when I'm old and gray I'll have more freedom to fly by the seat of my polyester pants. No. I take that back. I refuse to wear polyester regardless of age.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

SOTP just gets me in trouble because I wander off to wanywhere that's interesting. So I outline. But I have been known to rewrite an outline so that I can explore an irresistible path.

Anonymous said...

When I journal, I write SOTP. When I write non-fiction, I use a tight outline. For me, fiction has fallen somewhere in between. I think James Bell calls it the Headlights method (or something like that). I outline as far ahead as I can see, write up to that point, then do an outline for the next up-ahead segment.

But I'm very excited about a new writing book I just discovered, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. He looks at story as something organic (as opposed to the three act structure that ends up formulaic) and breaks down the different elements.

I had a vague idea for a next book and decided to follow his early steps to see where it would lead me, and by the end of the second chapter I had a solid premise.

I'm eager to keep going.

Is it outlining? Not yet. It's more like guided thinking.

If it works the way Truby says, the weeks of prep should make the actual writing fairly easy. I'll let you know. ;-)


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Becky, I'll check into that. Let me know how you like it.

Kathleen Popa said...

Becky, how great to see you here! I'm thrilled that you're working on a new project. The book sounds intriguing.

I'm an outline/SOTP person. The key is: write the outline, then ignore it till you get lost, then rewrite the outline. Like Winnie the Pooh going bump bump bump down the stairs on his head: there may be a better way, but I wouldn't know.

George, Peter, young Elvis, Gilligan, Jean-Luc, Cotton-Bond, Bionic Woman, fair-trade chocolate. Cats. Mornings. Right now trying very hard to be a health-nut.

Anonymous said...

Becky, we're always looking for good resources. Thanks for sharing about The Anatomy of Story. It sounds like one I'd like to read. Love hearing from you here.

Hey, Debbie, you got me in trouble. I just got an email from Rick with this in the subject line: it's me, not Paul (3 times, huh?)


Bonnie Grove said...

Thanks for the book recommendation, Becky. Screenwriters have a lot to say to novelists - I've ordered the book!

I'm somewhere between outlining and SOTP. I outline, but my ideas develop slowly over time. When I'm creating a book I'm a circular thinker - I'm learning my process.

Oh - and John ALL the WAY.

Carla Gade said...

I'm a pantser, but I'm also a list maker. Notice I didn't say outliner. They are not the same. I make lots of lists, but when I write I just jump right in. I often write future chapters and have to do backwards plotting. I plot a little, plan a little, by mostly am just winging it and seeing where the adventure leads. Doesn't sound very professional, but it's working out ok so far.

Barbara's blog said...

Latayne Scott turned me on to "Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon." I loved it!. I'm looking for "Raising Rain" and am sure I'll like it as well. Your characters are wonderful and the story so good that I didn't want to put it down.

Kathleen Popa said...

Barbara, you will love Raising Rain! I'm so glad you're reading it.

Anonymous said...

Barbara, welcome! We are so glad to have you here. I so enjoyed your book, The Demise of Bobby Mac, and you are going to find great fellowship here.

Yes, Debbie's books are wonderful. I can't wait to hear what you think of Raising Rain!