Question from a fellow novelist:
I have to admit, my plots have always dramatically changed from what I had in mind to begin with, especially when I reach the climax. Characters show up, plot twists are revealed, etc. That’s why I don’t outline the entire story before writing the first draft.
So I find it interesting that you do outline beforehand. Have you ever felt that stifle the actual writing, as if you have to “force” the story-in-the-making into the original blueprint of the outline?
This is an excellent question. And the answer differs greatly between authors. The important thing is for you to find a focus on outlining that suits your artistic temperament. But let me offer you a few comments on my own perspective towards outlining.
First of all, writing a successful book is like juggling a half-dozen different balls. To achieve a solid work, you must maintain a sense of balance throughout. You need to maintain an emotive flow, constancy in pacing, solid point of view, three dimensional characters, strong dialogue, and a clear vision of the climax. To achieve all this without outlining is certainly possible, but this helps you maintain the balance.
In my classes, I like to remind students that for professional athletes, ninety percent of their practice time is spent honing the ten percent weakest portion of their skills. This is where outlining comes in. It is practice time. It is an opportunity for you to honestly focus upon what is your weakest point BEFORE you begin the first draft.
Outlining is never the finished version. You are not anchored to this. Instead, this process should be viewed as a blueprint. If you have ever built a home, you know that the blueprint keeps changing until the last brick is in place.
Just as one example, I have never had my climax be the climax I write in the outline. Instead, that climax becomes a high point usually somewhere around ¾ of the way through the story. It allows me the freedom to explore what might be an even bigger bang that could be inserted later. And if it is a surprise for me, it certainly is also for the reader.
As for stifling the artistic flow, let me tell you one story. We have friends in the Basque region of France. He is a doctor, his father was a doctor, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. The first three generations all were passionate about art, but did not have enough money to buy the paintings they loved. So they bought sketches. Back then, sketches were not expensive. Even successful artists would sell their sketches for pennies.
All this we knew because it was a huge joke among his friends. How their house is cluttered with sketches, how they have this tiny little bungalow in the hills, and they could sell some sketches and buy a mansion, but their father only gave them the sketches after they promised never never never to sell even one. And how they both love and loathe the sketches, and how neither of them have ever spent one franc or euro on art.
None of this, however, prepared us for what we found when we first went to their home.
The place is not special, just another Basque farmhouse with a wall around a back garden and a small pool for the children. But we walked in their door, and were just slammed back into the street by what we saw.
Every wall, every square inch of space, was covered by sketches. It was so much that we couldn’t take them all in. So we focused on one wall. Just one. And this entire wall, maybe forty sketches, were all from Rodin. And all of these sketches were preparation for just one painting.
The sketches were of two things only. The great-grandfather had bought two sketchbooks and framed each page, and now they hung in the order that they were drawn. The first sketchbook was of a man’s hand. The hand was open, it made a fist, it held a spear, a knife, it carved, it pleaded, it threatened.
The second sketchbook began with a woman’s form in a diaphonous robe, and transformed it into an angel. Nineteen sketches in all, a gradual building up, layer after layer, until there was no question that this was a true angel.
So my response to you, as one who shares Rodin’s need to prepare diligently, is that no. In no way does preparing and working and seeking and growing dilute the power of your art.