Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do first-time novelists outline too much?

I'm about fifty pages into a debut crime novel that's full of evocative description, especially of observations about urban rise, gentrification and decline that probe deeper than the usual run of such things.

Characters show promise of interacting in unexpected ways even as they fill roles familiar for the genre. (The book is a police procedural.) So what's my complaint? Well, it's no complaint, just an observation.

As the author moves the building blocks of the story into place, I can too easily, er, see him moving building blocks into place. An observation here seems designed to set up a conflict there. Characters make references that seem obviously calculated to create obstacles for the protagonist later on.

Now, a novel is a complex undertaking, and I suppose everything should make sense in some way or other. But I want to be able to suspend my disbelief and to be able to feel that I am seeing a story unfold naturally.

So, I suspect that the author may have outlined and planned a little too carefully, which is why I'll read his second book with special interest when it appears to see if he loosens up a little.
***
I'm not revealing the name of the author or the book yet because I'm still early in the reading, and everything I have written could turn out to be nonsense. But I have this idea, without any evidence to back it up, that excessive outlining may be an occupational hazard for first-time novelists. What do you think? (Comments from authors welcome. Did you over-outline in your first book?)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels:

19 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Coincidentally enough, I was talking to a friend and coworker today about outlining. I think that for every first time novelist who outlines too much, there are probably three who don't outline at all. I have no idea who comes up with the ultimately most successful outcome.

V word, just to gloat, 'restsup'

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

My outlines used to be 20 pages long, making sure everything I was going to need was in there. Now they're a couple of pages, each chapter or scene described in a sentence or three, just enough for me to know what has to happen. How it happens I do on the fly.

I think they're much better that way, and a lot more fun to write.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, i'm relaxed just reading your v-word. Of course, with the break moved one letter to the left, "Rest, Sup ... " sounds like the first part of a working title for the sequel to "Eat, Pray, Love."

What conclusions did you and your friend reach about outlines? As it happens, I can also imagine writers who outline not at all or insufficiently, particularly in this degenerate age of ours. If I'm right about the subject of this post, I don't necessarily expect that he'll ever stop outlining, just that he might follow his own plan a little more subtly in future books. Once again, I should emphasize that I based the post on the novel's opening chapters. Perhaps the outlining and plotting are less visible later.

Seana, I can compete with you in the v-word department: joyseat

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, maybe the problem is not outlining, but rather making a smooth transition from outline to story.

March 24, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a freelance writer, not yet a novelist.

After wasting my 30s trying to write a loosely arranged novel (along the lines of TROPIC OF CANCER, A FAN'S NOTES and POST OFFICE) I can say that I was too easily distracted and I had a tendency to go off on stupid tangents.

So for my current part time writing project I've decided to outline and structure. I need to keep myself on task and heading toward an ending.

Dan Luft

March 24, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I have a lot to say on this subject, but shall refrain from doing so. I probably outlined the first two novels. My background is research papers which absolutely have to be outlined. I rewrote both books later.

These days I do not outline at all, but dear God, the mess I have to straighten out when I'm done! Mind you, my first novels were written on a typewriter, and I now have a computer. It changes work habits.

As for structure in successful novels: I once stated that Connelly must have outlined THE LINCOLN LAWYER and was corrected by someone who had the author's word that he had not and did not outline.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, your progression is something like what I imagine this post's subject was or mine would be: Get your ya-yas out writing free-form, then realize you need a bit more discipline.

Not that I've ever made an extended attempt at fiction, but I can well imagine that tight outlining is at the very least a useful exercise, something like a basketball player endlessly practicing free throws. Maybe by your fourth or fifth book, you'll have internalized the process.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., the question may be moot since you rewrote your first two books. But do you think they showed any effect such as the one I'm suggesting here -- excessive outlining? And did that earlier outlining help your later writing?

March 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

This has become a serious problem with all forms of American writing especially writers who have done an MFA or a screenwriting course. There is no room for the tangent or the messy. Everything has to be significant, even a joke or an aside. Plots are far too rigid and characters all have to have an eyepatch, a limp and a tic. All the goodies have to arc and the baddies have to prove how bad they are by doing horrible things (often to kids).

Of course everyone can see the clockwork in these type of books and films and the ending even the surprise ending is inevitable. Rigid plotting, 'call backs', character arcs are the enemies of creativity and originality.

Yes I agree with Seana that you cant just make it up as you go along but a little planning and preparation goes a long way.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I had the idea that the tendency to over-outline might be the result of a class or workshop.

I'd guess at this early stage that only one of the characters is in any danger of turning predictable, but he's not one of the main ones. I'll see what happens.

The author is not American, by the way, but I'll keep in mind the suggestion that the problem may be especially serious in the U.S.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I used to have an editor who was always telling me that every scene had to "turn the wheel of the plot" which I think is a terrible advice. Some of the best scenes in books and movies dont turn anything but just are little slices of normal or adnormal life with no other significance.

I also like scenes and sentences that are just about enjoying the language and again dont forward the story or anything like that.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's percisely the trouble I had with some of the sentences in the opening chapters. They seemed present only to advance the plot. I noticed this all the more because the guy uses the language well. Maybe when I'm done with the book, I'll put up a post with examples both of plot advancers and of, say, trenchant bits of description.

I don't think every sentence needs to turn the wheel as long at doesn't puncture the tire.

March 24, 2011  
Blogger Stan Trollip (of Michael Stanley) said...

Michael and Didn't outline A Carrion Death - our first novel. I think this resulted in it meandering too much. We outlined The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu (which we thought was better than A Carrion Death). When the book was finished it was reasonably close to the outline. And used a mix of both for Death of the Mantis (out in September). I don't think one way is better than the other - each author has to do what works best. However, not outlining, in my experience, takes longer and is scarier because you aren't sure what happens next. Lots of stuff is thrown away.
Stan

March 25, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know if my friend and I came up with any real answer about any of this. My feeling is that there are people who are bigger into preplotting and that works for them and there are people who aren't and that works for them too. Each has it's strengths and failings and of course a debut novel would tend to put those on show.

My own intution is that most writers fall victim to their own strengths in the end, so that for instance P.D. James tends to get stiffer and more architectural in her plotting as she goes along, and, well, I can't think of a good example of the other extreme at the moment.

I do think, and this is heretical, that the MFA program helps you along right up to the point where it kills you.

v word=wazoodde. Not joyseat, but still.

March 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't presume to suggest that one way is better than the other. The guesses I'd make is that a first-time author who does not outline might meander, while one who outlines might telegraph plot points. I merely speculated about the sorts of flaws one practice or another might lead to.

Do the job well, and a reader will be unable to tell the difference -- or won't care.

Congratulations on the impending new book.

March 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, sure, a debut novel might exaggerate the strengths and failings of a given method. My comments so far have not taken into account that a police procedural, such as this book, or a traditional mystery might call for more outlining than a noir novel or an adventure story. But what the hell do I know?

I found Dana's comments that he has streamlined his outlines over time interesting.

And now to bed because I have another day in the joyseat tomorrow.

March 25, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

To answer your questions: I don't know if outlining the first two novels helped me later. All I know is that I learned a lot from writing them. Their flaws were multiple, hence the rewrites. But most important: I had grown in the meantime and moved from the distant-protagonist/puzzle- solution type of novel to a character-scentered and internalized one.
I'm completely in agreement with Adrian that there is a great joy in scenes that simply deepen our understanding of character and life, and also in the brief glimpses of descriptive passages that do nothing but add atmosphere and sharpness to the background.

March 25, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

You sleep?

March 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nine hours a night.

March 25, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home