Monday, June 13, 2011

Flying without a Net

Been flying without a net with the new book I'm working on, which is unfortunate, because I keep falling off the highwire and cracking my head open on the ground below.
That is, writing without an outline. Just... seeing where it takes me.
Eh. Not such a good idea. So many wrong turns, so many characters without a clear motivation, so many threads that keep getting tangled up. A few minutes ago, I decided I didn't have a fucking clue what I was doing and really need to re-think this whole project...
At it's core, it's a good solid concept involving a washed-up ex-wrestler, his much smarter girlfriend, a Memphis mobster with two crazy-ass strong-arms, and fifty G worth of money that they all want. Let the hilarity ensue. But less than 80 pages in (working without a net, as I say) the various plot threads have become hopelessly tangled and nonsensical. This whole "seeing where it takes me" thing has led to too many POV shifts, too many peripheral characters with not much to do other than say a few words or pound a few heads or take a few drugs. I'm totally losing sight of the story.
So I'm thinking of starting fresh, this time with a halfway decent outline, concentrating on two or three central characters, and seeing if I can salvage anything out of this mess.
I know some of you work very well without an outline, but for me... man, it's a disaster.
So tell me, if you're a writer... outline or no outline for your work? And if you're a reader... do you prefer stories with tight, insulated casts, or big, sprawling byzantine plots?

P.S. That image above, which has nothing to do with anything I was just talking about, is by the magnificent Christopher Moonlight, if you're interested. You can find his work at Moonlight Art Magazine. I'm a big fan of his.


  1. go, go, go, write, write, write - FUCK outlines, man

  2. Heath, I always write without an outline. In fact, I start with the slenderest of threads, sometimes no more than a couple of lines from a song. My new novel sprang from an opening line. I wrote the line and let the character take me through his development and into the story.

    I think if you have a clear idea of a central character, he/she will tell you where they want to go, and that will take you through the novel. Having said that, though, not everyone can work this way. Some people absolutely need outlines. James Ellroy took eleven months to do his outline of BLOOD'S A ROVER, and then only eight months to write it.

    Myself, I can't really make up a story. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But I really can't. Outlining (i.e., creating a story in detail) is so far beyond me that I tremble when I think about it. Everything I've written has come from very meager origins. But my characters never let me down. I get so far inside their heads that I know exactly where they're going.

  3. I've done both, but I've found that writing without an outline takes me much longer, and I usually have to do staggering amounts of reconstruction, rewriting and other things that start we "re-" before the book is worth reading. Writing without an outline is frustrating, though, for me -- while it can be fun, usually I just end up with a bunch of stuff I don't want to get rid of, but that still has to go.

    On the other hand, I'm definitely a fan of sprawling, byzantine plots (especially when they're actually Byzantine). But if I want to write anything like that, I have to outline hardcore. It also makes it easier to work out any themes, motifs or symbolism I want to use, if I'm working on the kind of thing in which those kinds of elements play a significant part.

    So... No outline if I feel like doing a lot of post-production, as it were; outline if I need a plot; big damn crazy twisty plots are best. :D

  4. I thought I was smart enough to work without an outline. I was wrong. I'm too disorganized. They help and they help even more if you adjust them half-way through. Like writing a 1.B outline. Anyway, that's from my own personal experience. Didn't have anything picked up yet.

  5. Freestyle the first draft and write quickly - then use that as your outline and write it all again. Then edit and edit some more. It probably takes the same amount of time in the long run, but for a while you are free. Like getting drunk and having a hangover rather than pacing yourself.

    Whichever way, get writing Mister – finished The Bastard Hand today and I want more!


  6. Thanks, Seth, with any luck more is forthcoming...
    I think the way that works best for me (so far) is writing the first fifty pages or so free-style, and then working up a loose outline for the rest, after I've figured out what I'm doing. Two or three sentences per scene, usually. And by loose I mean VERY loose, remembering to be adaptable to new ideas as they come and re-work the outline accordingly.
    Jed, I wish I could do it the way you do, it sounds like more fun... ah well...

  7. I used to write by the seat of my pants. Then I started on a novel. I found myself going back, over and over again to fix stuff in the material. I started using Scrivener, which is complicated until you watch the little tutorial on how to do a basic doc. In ten minutes I was starting a novel, with little notecards that are changed into an outline by the program automatically. They can even be moved around or edited.

    As a writer, on longer works, outlines, even sketchy types, are kind of important to help you get your shit straight.

    As a reader, I get confused very easily, so I like one (or two) main plots with one (or two) sideline plots. I love it when they meet at the end.