The writers I know often argue about the value of outlines. Some books require them – a murder mystery, which has to be composed back to front, can’t really be done without some clear idea of who done it and who you want the reader to think done it; all the clues and red herrings. But I wrote the first two hundred pages of my first mystery with only the vaguest idea of what was actually going to happen. The eventual hero and several other major characters didn’t even exist in that draft. Admittedly, when I decided to actually finish the project, I had to sit down and organize who did what and to whom. There was a murder; someone had to solve it. That implied a detective character. Probably he was should be the hero. I had another unfinished book with a housepainter/poet protagonist. The book wasn’t working, but I loved the character. So – how about police chief/poet? That might work. The transplant was surprisingly painless. I was sick of housepainters anyway. Twenty years of painting houses will do that to you. I also needed some villains and some apparent villains. It came to head with a big party scene. Most of the characters attending that soiree in draft one have been written out; at least half the characters in the finished version didn’t exist when I started writing. It seems a chaotic and dysfunctional way to compose a book, but I was pleased to read today that the writers of 24 only have about one third of the season figured out when they start. In a way, the less you know, the better. Fowles said, “In art as in life, follow the accident, fear the fixed plan.” It’s a little scarier. But the results are generally worth the anxiety.
The truth is that writing occurs as you do it: the act of putting words on paper generates more words, not to mention ideas and characters. Much as your nit-picking, list-making, problem-mongering front brain hates to admit it, the big work is done in the sweat shop cellars of the unconscious. All your petty, anxiety ridden conscious mind can profitably do is get out of the way. This is why the best writing is always the quickest and the easiest. Studio executives and editors like the image of the writer pulling each perfect word out of his head like wisdom teeth with a pair of pliers and no Novocain (straight whiskey is our preferred anesthetic). It troubles them that good writing should come easily. But when the work is slow and painful, something is wrong. Nabokov understood this. He called the natural ease and lack of hesitation he felt the ‘velocity of intuition.’ Escape velocity: you can feel yourself pulling away from all the normal gravity, all the insecurity and confusion. You’re in orbit and three hours go by in the turn of a dependent clause.
It’s true that an outline can keep you on course and free you up for those big sessions. But the outline changes as you write and if you fight that anarchic process, the story dies.
I’m about to start rewriting a book I’ve been pecking away at for years. The new version of the character has a daughter. I almost dropped the whole idea of the revision, It would mean a year of my life and a massive amount of work. But I couldn’t bear to part with that little girl. Here’s the fragment that did me in:
But living on the ocean was a privilege, even Sally understood that. She’d stay in the water until her lips were blue and her fingertips were pale prunes with the cold, and still beg for more. She loved walking on the beach with him, on the cool, packed sand near the low-tide line, letting the icy brine foam around her ankles. He’d take her to lunch at Alice’s restaurant on the pier, just the way his Mom had taken him, chatting with the fishermen, checking the surf and then hurrying home before the incoming tide swept under the houses and they had to walk on the edge of the highway.
Sally loved the scent of the ocean and demanded to know why she could only smell it early in the morning and when she was just home from school. Mike tried to explain the principle of nasal fatigue, but she didn’t get it. “I want to do exercises,” she told him once. “I want a strong nose so I can smell the ocean all the time. “
He gave her a hug and kissed the top of her head when she said that. “Me, too, honey,” he told her. And he was thinking. “My girl. My little girl.”
So I decided to do a whole year’s worth of work and reconfigure a the whole novel, all because of one six year old girl’s stray comment about smelling the ocean. The point is, I hadn’t even known Sally cared about the ocean when I started writing that morning. But there she was, suddenly, alarmingly like my own daughter at that age, like the little kids in those Save The Children Foundation ads: just pennies a day will buy their village a goat or pay for ten years of penicillin shots. Or, in this far more eccentric and trivial case, a few paragraphs a day will keep this suddenly vivid and crucial figment of my imagination alive ...and sustain six hundred pages of painstaking rewrites.
Who could refuse?