Outlining for my Inner Child: Part 1

image from flickr user Sarah (Rosenau) Korf

In a conversation with the Sydney Morning Herald, George R. R. Martin describes two kinds of writers:

“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

That being said, I do know where I’m going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that’s not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.”

My brain likes logic. It likes categories and lists. Until I got to calculus, I was actually better at math and physics than language arts. My current writing ability is highly influenced by knowledge of grammar. Therefore, outlines and architecture.

To be honest, I think most of my favourite writers are gardeners though. Not all, but most, especially in fiction for adults. Neil Gaiman compares writing to driving on a foggy road where he can’t see very far ahead. George Saunders says it’s useless to think about writing when he’s not actually sitting with his work, because everything is determined by what the words on the page are, what they imply and require.

I often say my favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Although he talks about outlines in the introduction/first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, his architecture doesn’t sound very solid.

“… I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the vertical lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.”

That sounds beautiful, but not very solid…

As such, it was a great relief when I heard Kenneth Oppel talk at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable last year. His presentation showed the process he uses to write a novel. After spending time in a “dream phase”, imagining the world and drawing diagrams, the second step he takes is to create a beat sheet of every single thing that will happen in the novel.

Oppel’s diagram of the ship from Airborn

After that, I started to see evidence of architecture more often. Screenwriting requires heavy outlines because the process is so long, and there are so many people involved. Chris Sanders talks about the importance of getting the structure for How to Train Your Dragon right on the first try, because they wouldn’t have time or money to fix it later.

At the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, Arthur Slade talked about how important his planning phase was. Then I came across/remembered a few outlines I’d seen online. And from authors I really liked.

This is one of Scott Westerfeld’s meta-documents for Behemoth, called a “Pace Chart”. He has other documents that show the timeline for his events, so he can figure out whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday. The red/blue pins indicate POV characters. Notice the importance that Westerfeld places on building tension before the action sequence. (The program he’s using is Scrivener.)

This is J. K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix. The only part I can read are the months along the left side. Personally, I love the smudges. It’s a great visualization of how many different plots she’s kicking along at once. I’ve spent the most time studying the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rhythm of set-ups is relentless.

Joseph Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Another grid chart, like Rowling. Maybe I should try this format.

Brandon Sanderson identifies strengths and weaknesses to each approach. He says gardening leads to realistic characters and smaller more interesting details. I think it also works better for yearning and motivation. Architects are better at plotting–ensuring that you have a dark moment at the end of Act 2, a few big action scenes, and a show-stopper at the climax. If the pages fly by and you’re impressed by the ending, there’s likely been a plan.

When you start to think this way, you can get a feel for how a book was probably written. I don’t have evidence, but I would bet that the Hunger Games and the Grapes of Wrath were both heavily planned. The plots are evenly divided into thirds, and the finales are airtight. The push and pull of emotions, shooting from positive to negative, also points at an outlined plot. Furthermore, Collins has a background in television.

If something is madcap inventive in a certain way, like Half World by Hiromi Goto or the The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, I suspect gardening. I also see it in introspective characters, or when conventional plot pacing stretches to fit the character’s needs (we can’t have that moment yet, she’s not ready for it!) as in Plain Kate by Erin Bow or Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

I expected Susin Nielsen to be an architect, based on her experience with TV, but when I heard her describe her process, it sounded more like Martin’s. She said she knew things that were going to happen, but she mostly followed her characters. Which shows. They are highly relatable, and we get to know them instead of speeding off to the next plot point. When her climaxes do come, they’re compressed and intense.

As Martin said, the binary is an oversimplification. In reality, all writers do a bit of both: gardening and architecture. The desire to even divide this way feels like a product of my logic-brain getting loose. If I didn’t actually see patterns I’d stop thinking this way though. For me, it’s a helpful framework. Even if only to know there’s more than one way to write a novel, and that my way is valid.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss another fundamental division I see among people who write for children. There’s a hint in the title of this post. 😉

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