Today marks the beginning of a new novel, the last in a short series I’m writing at crackerjack speed for my own enjoyment and, I hope, yours! So here’s a post on some pre-writing work
I spent this past week and weekend plotting a new novel. The method I use was first introduced to me by David Morrell in his excellent book THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST. Before I read this book, I hated outlining. It sucked the life out of the story. But the results of “writing by the headlights” approach often meant tons of drafts until I found the core theme or idea or emotional heart of the story I wanted to tell.
Morrell’s method, though, isn’t bullet points or index cards or other things I’d tried to no avail. Instead, you have a dialog with yourself about the story in prose, and you ask questions and challenge assumptions about the tale you want to tell. It feels silly as hell at first. But I’m a pretty chatty patty, so it works well for me. The questions help minimize the wasted drafts as you burrow deeper or avoid cliches or find that the story you wanted to tell isn’t the one you’re thinking of right now, but another one buried deep in a adjacent idea.
It works well for me most times. It reduces drafts, keeps my enthusiasm high, and allows me to use a tool of storytelling, dialog, to outline. All aces.
I have friends who can’t stand this method, so I wondered why it worked for me. A couple of things jumped up.
1. It’s like improv, a form of comedy storytelling that forces you to mine the moment and then dig deeper. You keep going until you get to the best material (and even the lesser stuff can become stories or poems or whatever later). I’ve absorbed so much comedy and have rehashed and riffed on it for years with friends that thinking on the fly to get a reaction, to tell a story, is almost second nature (even when the joke bombs). The immediacy of it, too, appeals to me, and that also comes through in story dialogs of plot, where making a point form list in short hand, or, heaven help me, making a graph of the rising action like Damon Knight suggested would be about as appealing as a knee to the jaw.
2. Story Dialogs reminded me of something I did as a kid and young man a lot, which was walk with my friend James and just talk about anything and everything about pop culture, usually in the form of lists (top ten scariest horror films, top ten strongest wrestlers, top ten beauty queen TV actresses). All arguments had to be defended. All points were subject to challenge. And you got more points if you dug up cooler info about lost classics, obscure flicks and books, bizarre historical figures, etc. This perpetual time killing in the suburbs as we walked everywhere and nowhere, I think, conditioned my mind to braimstorm in dialog form.
And, thankfully, after a rusty start, I’m back in the game and getting the pages done. Onward!