There are two general ways I attack a story idea. I'm not going to get into where stories come from, because they don't come from anywhere, you just stumble across them, like finding shark's teeth on a beach. But once the idea is known to exist, here's what happens.
At first, I write whatever pops into my head. A few punchy opening pages, something that suggests the tone or voice of the story, establishes the scene, and gives me an interesting event to work with.
Then I back up, take stock of what I've written, and decide if I like it enough to work out the story properly.
That's almost universal for me. I have to charge up on the thing at least once. I might do this sort of blue-sky beginning on a story idea four or five times, looking for the right tone, that arresting detail. If it doesn't eventually click, I put the story away. If it clicks, I start writing in earnest.
Work begins in one of two opposing ways, of which I endorse only the former: writing an outline, or not writing an outline.
The latter first: sometimes, I think I know what I'm going to write, all the way through, and it works out fine. No outline necessary because I have a good sense of the terrain. This is a reckless and unreliable way to write. I almost wish it didn't work. But when the story is coming out in bucketfuls, who am I to argue with my own methods? Suffice it to say the outline is critical -- but not vital. (Nor is it ever sacred.)
I wrote my second novel in this manner. That story just tumbled onto the page. The entire book required one month and one day to write -- because I took Christmas Day off. Now it's with my publisher, and they're deciding whether to buy it.
How sure was I that the material existed for an entire book? Very sure, but the feeling was based on extremely limited evidence. A vague idea of the story, plus a few scenes, had occurred to me out of nowhere -- appearing almost instantaneously in my mind. I wrote what was probably a one-page synopsis so I wouldn't forget any of the important story beats, then commenced to type.
My schedule went like this: I wrote furiously each day for 10 or 12 hours, then spent half an hour noting what I thought I'd do the following day. In the morning, I'd start fleshing these notes out -- as often as not, doing something different from what I intended. I repeated this until I had the story done.
Lucky me. That's no way to write novels, in my opinion. I'm simply not clever enough to yank everything out of the air, in normal circumstances. I need to reflect on different ways of reaching the destination, organizing together the disparate ideas that have aggregated into the idea. There are many false starts. That's why I usually outline. That white heat of writing the first few pages is well and good, but then it's time to examine the thing and figure out, as much as possible, what will happen.
My outlines take several forms. I used to pin up 3x5 cards in a row, each one containing a scene, with further cards cascading below those for scene details, scraps of dialogue, and so forth. I've also written screenplays (as with my first novel) that wanted to become something longer and more detailed than a script could sustain. So the screenplay would become the outline, with further material jotted in the margins and written out in detailed notes. Finally, as I'm doing now, I will sometimes write a detailed treatment of the story in rambling form, full of notes and observations, then tighten that up into a few pages I can keep at my elbow while expanding it (the story, not my elbow).
I believe outlines are important because it is possible to tell a great story badly, or a bad story well, and in either case you're cheating yourself and the reader. A wonderful idea may be enough to keep the reader turning pages until the end, but it may also fail to deliver as much as it promises. That's a disappointing waste of a good idea. I won't mention any specific examples because I might run into Dan Brown socially, some day. But you know what I mean. On the other hand, sometimes a book is chock-full of brilliant writing, wonderful scenes, and exciting ideas, yet it doesn't make a lick of sense from one end to the other, and ends up telling a different story from the one the author set out to relate. I hope to meet Stephen King someday, too.
So when in doubt -- and I am always doubtful when I begin -- go ahead and attack the story, just to see if it's what you want to spend the next months or years of your life working on. But don't go too far. Stop when you find yourself having to think about what happens next.
Then back up, take notes, chew on a lot of pens, stare into space. Work out what you think the story is about, and what happens, and to whom you think it happens. These elements, in combination, act as a scaffolding on which the tale can be erected. The level of detail you require for the outline depends on how much specific material is required to deliver the narrative to the reader. A detective novel full of clues, tricks, and reveals will need a detailed outline, as it must end in a perfectly conclusive way. An anecdotal story about the end of a long-term relationship can be more formless, with a variety of acceptable outcomes. You'll know on an instinctual level when the outline is ready to expand.
But if the story is pounding at the door, yelling full-throated to get written, and such niceties as outlines must be dispensed with -- go ahead and write it. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you get it written.
2 weeks ago