Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Somewhere Between Too Much and Not Enough

An agent has asked me for an outline of my peculiar lit-fantasy novel Earthly Vessels. I'm already familiar with the unique pain of writing synopses, but an outline is new territory for me.

As I understand an outline, it's supposed to be a fairly bald, chapter-by-chapter accounting of What Happens Next. This is certainly an easier proposition than composing a synopsis, which is an artform of its own. (And one at which good novelists seldom excel.)

I have to confess, however, that Earthly Vessels isn't the sort of book that outlines well. Yes, there is a this-happens-and-then-this-happens throughline. But the book purports to explain all the mysteries of not just the universe but the multiverse. Sorta. And it isn't clear how much of that needs to go in the outline.

The process of outlining brings the whole issue of balance to the fore. In one of his fine essays on writing fiction, Lawrence Block quotes a musician as saying, "The worst thing in the world's when you're singing dirty blues and not going over, and you're not sure if it's 'cause you're too clean or too dirty." When you have something eccentric with potential truckloads of outlandish detail, should you try and keep the detail to a minimum--or should you view it as the whole point of the work, and give it full rein? Some of the novels I like best are stuffed with potentially self-indulgent detail: O'Brian's endless nautical jargon, the faux-scholarly footnoting in Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Fowles' obsessive Victorian trivia in The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The answer, as always, is the Goldilocks Optimum: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

Earthly Vessels runs about 115,000 words. Outlining the chapters makes me think I have rushed the end (a recurrent sin of mine), and perhaps been a little conservative in larding on the details. Even though 115K is a hefty book, I'm afraid it's a little shorter than it ought to be.

Unless, of course, its problem is that it's too long.

There. That clears things up. I'm so glad we had this little chat.

14 comments:

Janet said...

I think I'll just sit here and giggle at your jokes, gloat at your discomfort, and try to ignore the fact that I will probably have to confront similar issues in the near future. You can call it denial, I'm calling it living one day at a time. ;o)

On a totally different note, do you enjoy re-reading your own stuff?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Far be it from me to urge anyone out of their Be Here Now state of mind.

Do I enjoy re-reading my own stuff? It depends on whether I remember it as good but on re-reading find it bad, or vice-versa. I assume there will come a day when my perception on re-reading matches my recollection. That day will no doubt signal the Rapture or the end of the Yuga or the Age of Aquarius or at least a time when I can quit self-medicating.

Do you like re-reading your pages? (That's such an interesting question I'll probably ask everybody in some future post. Thanks. I needed a topic.)

Janet said...

When I hit the parts that were reasonably well written, yes, I enjoy it a lot. I can't figure out if that's healthy - something along the lines of writing the books you like to read - or whether I'm just horrifically delusional, like a contestant auditioning on American Idol.

I think it was Yeats who said most people like their own handwriting like they like the smell of their own farts. I'm really, really hoping that it's not just an extension of that phenomenon. How on earth does one obtain objectivity about one's own work?

On the other hand, there are times when reading my own stuff disgusts me. Sometimes it's my mood, but more often, those are just really badly written passages, where I was seeking inspiration as I wrote and it didn't come. I never show those to anyone else...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I feel your pain, having similar probs myself. I can't write synopses. Can't do it. Have tried. But a synopsis leaves out all the important stuff, like the voice and the meaning. Plot is such a teeny part of the book.

I swear I never would have got published if MNW had wanted a synopsis.

Matt Curran said...

Ditto on the synopsis. It feels like an injustice to write an outline for a book because of all the interesting stuff you have to leave out for the sake of brevity. A blurb is different - it's a tease to hook the reader in a way that a synopsis isn't. I can write blurbs okay but not synopses. So I bought a book (by Stella Whitelaw, I think) called "How to write and sell a synopsis".

(I can't say whether it helped or not... as Aliya points out, MNW don't do synopses, just completed novels!)

Matt Curran said...

As for re-reading my own stuff...

I don't mind it. Especially the first couple of times. I catch myself thinking, "bloody hell, did I write that? It's actually quite good."

However, after six or seven re-reads I tend to think "if I read this bloody book one more time, I'll...."

Tim Stretton said...

I can't write outlines or synopses.
I like re-reading my own work, too much.
For physiological reasons, I can't smell my own farts.

Alis said...

Can I join the 'I'm rubbish at synopses' club? I meet the criteria really well... An outline sounds like a synopsis on acid, so is this worse or better? Is it more plot details with still no idea of what the book is really ABOUT?
But surely the point is - an agent? Cool!! Hope it works out.

David Isaak said...

Hi, All--

I've always wondered if there were a common denominator amongst the diverse Macmillan New Writers. Now I know: none of them can write synopses to save their lives.

I must say that an outline seems to be easier than a synopsis. It need not be so concise, and isn't really supposed to excite interest.

But it sure is lonnnnnnnggggggg...

David Isaak said...

PS to Matt: Yeah, I can manage a blurb of sorts. But a real synopsis? Ha.

PS to Aliz: The fact that the agent is even looking at Earthly Vessels means he has unusual taste indeed.

Jen Ster said...

Check out my blog, around April 2008, for my struggle with synopses. It was entertaining. Not for me but for other people. Well, some people said it was annoying.

Anyway, if you want a test reader I'll do it. Gratis. Just one more service I offer. Which is how I say "I'm much better at offering other people advice than I am at taking my own, or anyone else's for that matter."

David Isaak said...

BTW, Tim--that olfactory limitation you have seems useful...

Tim Stretton said...

Yeah, on balance it's an advantage...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

As it turns out, I'm finding writing an outline to be tedious, but nowhere near as hard as a synopsis.

If I get in a silly mood, I may post the synopsis I sent to the agent. The book is too offbeat for a real synopsis, so I just tried to give some idea of the basic storyline and flavor of the book. It says a good deal for the intellectual curiosity (or possible madness) of the agent that he asked to see pages after reading the synopsis.