Off the Edge

When I’m writing a novel, I start with an outline. As someone once said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” For a 100,000 word book, the outline can easily be 5,000 words. It can contain scraps of dialog, alternative ideas that I haven’t decided on yet — anything, really.

As the writing proceeds, the outline becomes less and less relevant. Quite often, while drafting a scene or a chapter, I’ll think of something better than what’s in the outline. When I’m halfway through the first draft, I may have to scrap the outline and write an entirely new outline for the second half, because so much has changed.

I write fast. 2,000 words of draft per day is a comfortable target for me. You’d think that would produce a 120,000 word novel in two months, but the process is not quite that fast, because sometimes you have to stop and devote a couple of days to planning.

This morning the outline says, in essence, “She makes friends with the dragon and convinces him to help them.” That’s exactly what has to happen, in one brush-stroke … but it’s a tall order! The outline doesn’t have a word to say about how it’s going to happen. I’ve written myself off the edge of the outline. Time to pause and plan.

One technique that I’ve found useful is to make a list of questions that will need to be answered, phrasing the questions as precisely as possible. Questions like, “Why exactly would the dragon want to help them? What would motivate him?”

Another technique is to throw away any preconceptions that I may be harboring about how the narrative ought to unfold. Maybe the dragon doesn’t help them. Or maybe he helps them unwillingly, because they’re threatening to break his (her?) unhatched eggs. Anything might happen. One of the dangers, for a writer, is that you become so enamored of your original vision that you’re unwilling to set it aside. So you keep trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

I’ve written a couple of novels that were published, back in the day. I’ve also written several that haven’t been published, and probably shouldn’t be. I’ve had some practice at this stuff. Maybe I’m getting better at it. Maybe. We’ll see. Now, about that dragon….

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