From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.

Implicit or explicit?

Writing a trilogy is trickier than I thought: I’ve written the three novels  in ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ as three ‘episodes’ set ten years apart, but readers may not tackle them in chronological order. No matter how much you want her to start at the beginning, every reader may start wherever she wants. As a consequence, I can make no assumptions about what the reader already knows about previous events or understands about the characters.

Other series I’ve read with pleasure, notably the Patrick O’Brian ‘Aubrey and Maturin’ stories, make very few concessions to the reader: if you’re lost, that’s your problem. But I have tried to be a little more accommodating, and there’s the rub. For the ‘experienced’ reader I can afford to be implicit, letting them fill in the gaps from what they already know. For the ‘novice’ reader however, implicit is harder: it may drive them back into the previous episodes for greater understanding, or it might drive them away altogether. More details and back stories sometimes need to be provided, which could threaten the flow of the plot and risk annoying those for whom the repetition is unnecessary.

On the whole I think explicitness has won out, but while writing recently the final stages of Part 3 ‘Fallout’ I’ve tipped towards ‘less is more’. The main thread of the story is the one that really matters, to me at least, and is reasonably well tied together at the end. I had planned to have a big ‘set piece’ as a penultimate chapter, to update the wider cast of characters and make their futures more explicit, but when I got to that stage the big scene lost its appeal. I knew I was done when I started to cry, and didn’t want to dilute the final impact by writing more.

So the ms of ‘Fallout feels almost complete. It will have to be read out loud and crafted more thoughtfully, sentence by sentence, but the main work is done, a couple of weeks before my self-imposed deadline. Is that a good sign I wonder? After the protracted agonies of the first novel this has felt alarmingly straight-forward. If there’s something seriously awry I’m counting on my wonderful editor Charlotte to find it. Mick, my partner, has been reading as the draft has unfolded and his feedback has been invaluable, but he may be too close to see the faults clearly, as I am myself.

I recall this feeling of anti-climax: restlessness, uncertainty, desperate for feedback. The urge is to start on the next stage in self-publishing, the nightmare of promotion and ‘marketing, but I’m trying to be patient – not my strong suit. By next week I may know more and feel differently. Watch this space.

Dealing with ‘Point of View’

In 2008 I went on a course entitled ‘How to Write a Novel’. Over a week, with expert tuition, we learned about structure, character, dialogue, all good stuff. I was hooked, with all the confidence of the novice. I wanted my tale to be multi-facetted, like a precious stone, glittering with fascinating minor characters, each of whom would see the action from their own unique perspective, adding richness and texture, etc etc. You get the picture. Ludicrous ambition.

There was another admired model of story-telling in my head, from the unlikely source of the US police drama ‘Law and Order’. Not the recent offshoots, but the old original series, with low-slung angular cars and police using public phones, and then mobile phones the size of bricks. In those early days, every episode of Law and Order followed the same formula beginning with the discovery of the crime, and usually a body, by minor characters who held our attention for only a few moments before their function is fulfilled and they disappear. These bit-part players provide a momentary, quirky (what a great word!) ‘point of view’, quickly overshadowed by the familiar detectives who arrive on the scene and take over.

When I began the tortuous journey towards my first novel I didn’t even think about whose ‘point of view’ I was writing from. I would relate the action from one character’s perspective, and then switch to another perspective within the same paragraph without any awareness that I was doing so. The idea and effect of ‘point of view’ was unknown to me. I wonder now whether it was mentioned on that first course and I missed it, or was it never raised at all?

The first draft of my novel was sent off for critical review after two years of painful effort, and six weeks later, just before Christmas, the response came back. ‘What happened to ‘point of view’?’ said the reviewer. ‘The reader sees the action from several different viewpoints within the same chapter, and some of those viewpoints are minor characters we know very little about. This is asking too much, the reader will be confused. You need to reduce the number of characters through whose eyes the story is told: two or three main characters at most. Make a choice.’

The advice was sound, but devastating. I couldn’t tweak a few things to fix the problem: the whole novel had to be started again. For a while I couldn’t face it, letting the distractions of Christmas and New Year push the troublesome task to the margins of my life. But in the end I knew that I had already invested too much in this project to let it go. I went back to the beginning and rewrote almost everything, cutting out some characters completely, changing the perspective, and reducing the overall length. It was my first painful experience of a task I heard described much later as ‘murdering your darlings’. My darlings were well and truly decimated, but the lesson was learned.

That’s enough confessional for now. I’m coming back again to the issue of ‘point of view’, but just for now Chapter 19 of Book 3 is calling me and cannot be delayed any longer. It’s ready. And I know whose point of view it will be from.