Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2018


After many years of “pantsing,” that is, writing by the seat of my pants—literally, having no idea what the end of the novel will be or what will happen between the beginning and ending—I’ve finally learned how to write by outline. And it’s wonderful! I remember other authors telling me that it was SO much easier to write by outline and that I should keep at it until I figured it out (I’d tried before, but it never worked for me—I got bored with outlined books). They were right! Well, mostly right.

I don’t sit down and write out an outline for a book and then just start writing it. I guess I do more of a modified method (as most writers probably do). For me, it’s helpful to write out a character sketch to start with, then write a chapter or two in that character’s point of view, before I start thinking about plot. This is because for me, a book is almost always primarily about character first. And about voice. It’s hard for me to know what’s going to happen to a character until I get to know their voice. If that sounds weird, since the character comes out of my own head, well, I guess it is a little weird. But that’s how it works for me, anyway.

Once I’ve written a bit, I can stand back and think about what this character’s arc is, and plot out a few of the points along the way to the end of that arc. If you’re wondering what that means, I guess I’m thinking about what a character learns along the way, how they are changed by the end of the book. I feel strongly that we read because we want to feel the structure we don’t always see in our own lives, and we want to see proof that people can change and become better. (Yes, there are stories where characters don’t change or where they don’t become better, but I think those stories are rarer and less compelling to most readers.)

If a character is going to learn to be more forgiving, how do they get there? If they’re going to learn who they really are, what do they find out? If they’re going to come into their own strengths, what are those strengths and how do they improve on them? The outer plot of a story (where they go, what battles they fight, who they talk to, etc.) is for me a series of points along this character path, and the particulars are far more interchangeable than the character’s inner development. I often think about a novel as two things: a plot path and a character path, or an outer journey and an inner journey. These happen at the same time, which is what rivets readers, but you can’t forget at any point about either of them.

Now, let me explain that what I write out the first couple of days as I’m banging out an outline isn’t what I feel obliged to stick to, come hell or high water. As I get to work and start writing, there are changes—some big and some small. In the most recent novel I outlined, I started out with seven pov characters, but as I started writing, it just seemed like too many, so I cut one of them. Yes, I killed off one of my own characters, and then deleted all sign of her in the manuscript. That was the biggest change I made as I went along, but there were many times when I started writing for the day by looking at my outline and realized it simply didn’t work anymore.

Other changes included killing off a couple of minor characters (it’s hard to keep track of a lot of characters in one book, especially one that already has six povs). I cut out chapters here and there, invented a couple of new chapters to replace them, tweaked things all over the place, added and subtracted where I felt like I’d assumed too much or hadn’t been inventive enough.

While I felt no obligation to stick to my outline, I feel like I’d done a fair job of imagining how to get my characters to where I wanted them to go. And yes, in a couple of cases, my first vision of where I wanted the characters to end up was wrong. With one character, I ended up deciding I needed her to go further than I’d planned, and with another one, not quite as far along the path was more realistic.

In this particular novel, the biggest change that I made was that as the novel progressed, I had forgotten that it wasn’t six different short stories. It was a novel, which meant that all of the lives had to intersect. And those connections took up time and space in the story. A novel isn’t just about events. It’s also about community, particularly this novel. I needed to write that community in, and that was a discovery along the way.

If you try outlining, give yourself space to discover things along the way. I suspect this was one of my problems when I first tried outlining about twenty years ago, and tried it again about ten years ago. I felt like it killed the spontaneity that I love about writing and so I didn’t have any reason to find out what was going to happen at the end of the book. There’s still room for change, but I have to say, the anxiety of writing each day has been greatly decreased by the sense of having a map to follow. To extend that analogy, just because you have a map to follow doesn’t mean that you know what’s going to happen on the road that day. But you don’t wake up every morning thinking, I wonder where I’m headed today—and just wander around, hoping you get somewhere.

Let me emphasize again that I think some pre-writing is really useful, particularly getting to know your character before you start. After all, how can you outline a whole novel about someone before you’re introduced to them yourself? You don’t know what they want or need, or what they’re going to tell you they definitely don’t want to happen to them (which, of course, is precisely what WILL happen to them, right?)

If you haven’t tried outlining before, may I suggest trying it now? Start with a beginning point and an end point and work on both outer and inner storylines from each end, coming together in the middle, if that helps. Or you can go from point to point until the end, having an idea of what the end point will be from your character sketch, in which you describe an arc of development. I hope this is useful. But I admit, any way you get yourself to sit down and write is probably a good way, even if it’s not the most efficient method available.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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