Was feeling a bit stuck in the novel I’m currently writing, so I took my notebook to a cafe and spent time with the outline. I’m still working out my relationship between the outline of a novel and the novel itself; I outline first, then as I write the novel I keep adjusting and readjusting the outline, which I continue to work from as I write the novel. Balance is important. I need the overall sense of the book in my head. I need that sense of shape and direction.* At the same time, I have to pay close attention to the natural evolution of the story. When it came time to revise STRANGER, I realized I had made a wrong turn during the middle; I had to throw out all those chapters, tighten up the beginning, and rewrite the middle from scratch. A lot of this was because I had ignored some of my earlier instincts and relied on the original outline even when it no longer served what the story was becoming.
Thing is, writing a complete outline before you start writing the novel can be like making a career decision when you’re still in high school. For example: my sister thought she wanted to be a social worker. Once she entered university and started working with severely abused adolescents (many of whom had already become child abusers themselves), she realized, no, not quite; she wanted to teach grade school. Still working with kids, still serving the community, but she had to adjust her general life outline.* In other words, her original plan had put her near the target, but not quite on it.
So over diet Coke and a chicken panini I made smalltalk with the waiter and asked myself some questions about the novel and answered them in my notebook. And what I realized — why my writing mind had dug its heels in the dirt and said Whoa — was that the new character I’m introducing isn’t just a nice supporting role but opens up into some fascinating possibilities.
I went back into the novel with new enthusiasm. The scene progressed unchanged but I have a richer sense of my new character and how she fits into the structure of the novel; and also how the structure of the novel fits into her.
Because structure is not just the frame the characters wander around in. Structure is character, and vice versa. Or so I’m learning.
* And, hell, let me be honest: I want to be not just a good novelist, but a prolific novelist, like the writers I’ve always admired most (be they literary or genre or, more usually, some combination thereof) and outlines help me write a better book faster.
**She now teaches special ed in an underprivileged neighborhood in Los Angeles.