Sunday, June 27, 2010


Each Friday, the great QueryTracker releases its success stories in a database. Some people are even interviewed (they fill out a form if they want to) and all of us can read them. Most of the time, they're either inspiring or encouraging. I'm always interested in reading about other writers' writing process. There seem to be two main clans: those who outline in advance and those who write on the fly. I belong to the first group.

Hello, my name is Francis and I am an outliner.

During the research part of my writing endeavors, I read many books on the topic of writing. One of them was Stephen King's memoir ON WRITING, which is both an autobiography and a book dashing out tips. King requires no introduction. He's so successful that he asks for a 1$ advance and starts collecting royalties from the go. The fact he can even make that request and be indulged is proof enough of his stardom. He's also successful enough that he can diss Stephenie Meyer's writing in public and get away with it. That might just be the mark of a very successful writer? Who knows. All I know is that I liked his book.

King isn't an outliner. In fact, he says plot is secondary and not important compared to fleshing out the characters. He just starts writing without a plan and sees where it gets him. I've read a lot of writer blogs, and the amount of outliners versus let's-see writers seems to be split 50/50. Try as I might, I could never not outline.

As you can see by the picture of my notes above, I tend to be overly organized in some things. Though it took a few months, I had the entire trilogy outlined before the first draft of the first novel was done. As of now, I know how the 2nd and third book will end (and I'm only 10,000 words in the 2nd book), I have all the backstory figured out and already know what some of the bigger plot twists will be.

I'm not sure exactly why I do it. Probably security, but also because I've read a few posts warning about sucky endings and cop outs. The anonymously fabulous INTERN blogged about the issue a few months ago. I personally take a lot of satisfaction when I watch a movie or read a book that is meant to end a trilogy and all subplots come full circle with dignified answers.

And what I mean by "dignified answers" is when the resolution of whatever the problem is DOES NOT appear to have been pulled out the writer's ass at the last minute because he or she couldn't figure out a better way. Some examples...

Darth Vader: the black costume was cool, but it served a purpose. Though we didn't find out until Episode III in 2005 how Anakin got his burned look, Lucas already knew in 1977 that it was Obi-Wan who had in fact defeated him during a duel on a volcanic planet. Hence, the line Vader delivers during his duel with Obi in episode IV, "I've been waiting for you Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. When I left you I was but the learner. Now, I am the master", finds a lot more meaning. I love that kind of insight, for some reason.

Underworld: Kate Beckinsale starred in the first two Underworld movies as Selene. Rhona Mitra took over for the third one as Sofia, which is in fact a prequel to the first two installments. What I found really interesting about the third movie is that it brought the first two to a full circle. Already in the first Underworld, Sofia's existence was already alleged. We saw flashbacks of her death that would be revisited in the third movie six years later. There was no way to do that unless the backstory was already figured out, if only partially when the screenplay for the first movie was being written. The second Underworld movie hinted at Selene's past and it's link to Sofia even more. Finally, the third Underworld movie showed us what actually happened in the past with Michael Sheen returning as Lucian.

They did get a detail wrong, though. In the flashbacks of movie #1, Sofia is a blonde. In movie #3, Rhona Mitra has black hair. That's a direct contradiction, and though it is a very small detail and most people probably never even noticed, it did bother me a little.

I admit it is completely unimportant in the greater cosmic order of things, but I like it when there is no contradiction. I realize it is entirely impossible to plan years in advance when it comes to screenplays and casting, but I'd be extremely uncomfortable getting into a three books deal without having a satisfactory ending in mind. I would hate to resort to purple goats to resolve a high tension plot I spent three books building. Doesn't it defeat the purpose?

I don't have all 400 pages of each book figured out of course, just the main plot and some subplot resolutions, but what I find really cool about outlining is that you can set up certain plot twists in book 1 that will only come out in book 3. You can hint at things that seem ordinary or meaningless in book 1, then in book 3 come out with an answer that will be that much more satisfactory because all the pieces of the puzzle were there for you to figure it out.

This leaves the risk of having smart readers dissect it and figure it out in advance before you want them to, but c'est la vie. To be honest, when I find myself wondering just who character X really is, that's when I know I'm immersed.

Case in point: I spent hours after hours debating just who the final Cylon was on Battlestar Galactica. I wasn't alone: on certain discussion forums, threads could go on for twenty pages about who the final Cylon might be, with facts and quotes from passed episodes to support the poster's hypothesis. Incredibly nerdy and geeky--yes. Incredibly cool--yes. I could only be so lucky if a novel I wrote would be enticing enough to warrant such interest... but in my opinion, that's the mark of a good story. Ronald D. Moore is right up there with J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon as far as I'm concerned.

What is your writing philosophy? Do you outline, or write as you go?


February Grace said...

I met Ronald Moore once- he was amazing. It was back in the day before Battlestar when he was still writing for Trek (they were actually casting for Voyager at the time). He signed my copy of TNG Writer's Guidelines I'd bought that day- still treasure it.

I couldn't really get into the revamp of Battlestar personally, but I agree he is a phenomenal writer- my favorite Trek episodes are Moore episodes (Ensign Ro anyone???)

To actually answer your question- tried it, I just can't outline much. I actually did it more for an idea that turned into my first attempt at a screenplay this year (just for fun) but in the end the whole screenplay felt like an outline for the novel I still want to write about these characters.

It's all about characters to me- and that has made all the difference in my writing. But everyone's mileage varies most of the writers I know don't understand how I can work without one! Interesting post as always, Francis, thank you!


Francis said...

Michelle Forbes is an awesome actress, Ron brought her back to play Admiral Cain and she didn`t want to until she saw a few episodes... maybe give it a try again? ;)