Of Outlines and Merkins
A couple of people have been asking me about “the writing process” lately – the mechanics of actually sitting down and writing a book. Let me clarify something: If I was teaching a writing class, you probably wouldn’t want to attend it. Seriously, I’d just stand up the front looking confused, then start talking about how “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is actually a brilliantly written and conceived series, once you get past all the merkins and blood-porn.
I’m probably the last person you should ask for advice about how to write. However, I’ll give out one nugget of wisdom, which may only be true for me, and it is this:
Novel outlines are sunless alleys where great stories are dragged and quietly strangled.
Yes, I realise this is tantamount to heresy in some circles. I know of authors who write 30 page novel outlines, with each chapter planned out in meticulous detail. And this obviously works for them. I’m not knocking it, it’s just not for me.
I don’t write an outline in anything but the roughest, most bare-bones sense (usually four of five chapters in advance, and only towards the middle of the book). My problem with outlines is that they tend to take the spontaneity out of the writing process. It’s lovely to never have to sit down in front of a blank page and ask “So what happens now?” But the best twists and turns I’ve thought of in my books literally sprang into my head as I was writing the scene. ( Either that, or just bouncing ideas off my lovely bride). They are not planned. They are tiny, joyous little surprises, like finding that rumpled fifty in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans.
This is where I get my biggest writing kicks – the moments where I surprise myself. And the problem with writing a novel outline, especially the kind that are minutely detailed, is that you don’t leave any room for that spontaneity – those “OMG, wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments.
(Besides which, if halfway through your book, you think of an awesome twist that totally changes the direction of the plot, all the effort you put into your meticulous plan has to be scrapped, because your book is headed in a direction you never anticipated.)
The best (and worst) moments in life are the ones you probably didn’t expect. If a turn in your novel surprises you, you can be damn sure it will surprise your readers too. And nobody is getting surprised if they have every inch of the journey planned out in some spiffy piece of writing software, color-coded and quantified like some Rimmer-eque revision chart.
You don’t need a map to go exploring. You just need a rough idea of where you want to end up, and a willingness to
take wrong turns get hopelessly lost. But hopefully along the way, you’ll also find yourself in amazing places you never would have discovered if you set out with a shiny compass and a crisp set of directions and an exact idea of what your destination will be. And hopefully you’ll have some fun in there too.
Anyway, it works for me. But again, merkins and blood porn, so yeah…
Grain of salt, peoples. Grain of salt.