Actually, this week’s subject was part of a discussion I was involved in last weekend t the Coral Springs Festival of the Arts. The thing is, I really don’t much outline or plot anything. Not on paper at least. I am constantly writing in my head, but that doesn’t guarantee that anything I ever write will see print and I can almost promise none of it quite turns out the way it did when I was working out the mental blueprints.
As I’ve said before, I find traditional outlining to be extremely limiting. I’ve even had a few debates with other authors about the subject. Last Thursday night I lost a dear friend, Rick Hautala, a best selling author and a wonderful man as well as an excellent writer. You should read his works if you have a chance. He was amazing. I miss him a lot, and I don’t think that feeling will go away. He and I used to have long discussions about the idea of outlining. Rick was a strong proponent. What he told me was that his first outline of a novel was basically the complete skeleton of the work.
I told him what I’ll tell you right here and now. I can’t do it. I’ve tried, and it’s like Kryptonite to me. If I outline something, I can basically guarantee that it will NEVER come out at all like what I write. When I was a kid I’d watch those old Peanuts cartoons where Charlie Brown would put a leash on Snoopy and the beagle would immediately fall over, coughing, choking, unable to walk or breathe because of that damned collar and leash combination. Yeah. That.
I can’t do it. What I said at the seminar during the art’s festival was simply this. I tend to look at writing a book a lot like finding my way across a river. I am standing on one shore, looking at the far shore and what I need to do in order to reach that shore is have a few stepping stones. All of which is a very fancy way of saying I have a beginning, an ending in mind and a few scenes that strike my fancy. Those scenes are as close as I get to an actual plot. There are exceptions, of course. When I’m doing licensed works I HAVE to have an outline and a bloody detailed one at that, because the people who own those properties and ask me to write a story want to know what I’m doing with the toys in their sandbox and want to know that I’m not going to break anything. I’m good with that. It’s frustrating, but I can accept that. But when I’m doing my own thing, it’s basically freeform. The only plotting is what it’s going to take to get me from stepping stone to stepping stone along the way to that far shore, and that’s how I like it. That way I have the pleasure of surprising myself and, hopefully, my readers as well.
Not to say there’s anything wrong with a tight plot, of course. It always worked well for Rick and that man never once disappointed me with his writing.
I have always believed that knowing how to plot is as important as knowing and understanding the rules of grammar. And just like those rules, I believe that once you know how to work the basics, you should bend the rules to the breaking point if that’s what helps you work your mojo. As far as I’m concerned there is no right or wrong on the subject, there’s only the ways that work best for the individual author.
James A. Moore