Saturday, July 10, 2010

Giving My WIP the Treatment

I'm incapable of outlining a novel, because I never know what the heck the story is until I'm writing it. I'm hardly unique in this regard. (Ryan David Jahn has a nice post on the problem.) Someone at a writing conference once claimed to have done a survey, and had determined that two-thirds of writers outlined, and one-third didn't. I'm not sure if this was a survey of writers in general, published writers only, or what. The writers I seem to know aren't outliners--though some of them do plan in some fashion or another.

One thing I think would be nice about an outline is that you could see the shape of your story. That's very appealing. But since I discover my story as I write it, that isn't an option.

This time, however, I'm trying something new. (New for me, that is. I'm sure others have done it before me.) With 14 chapters now in hand, I'm writing something very much like a story treatment--those short narratives that describe the proposed course of a screenplay. These are invariably written in third-person present tense, and so I am doing likewise, hoping that the kazillions who have gone before me will have worn a path in the fabric of existence in which it will be easy for me to plod along.

What I'm doing is laying out the narrative with each chapter taking up a single, numbered paragraph. And, that now done, I'm using the white space beyond my current chapter to add notes about where it is going--things I now know are inevitable, things I'm toying with, things that might happen, questions to myself. The sort of stuff that used to show up in my little pocket notebook, but now laying out there as possible extensions to portions of the treatment that are already "in the can," as Hollywood has it.

It's far from a pre-writing outline, but I'm finding that it's nice to be able to scan the shape of, as the Prince Valiant comic strip used to say, Our Story So Far.

Perhaps I'm just fuzzy-minded, but I find that when I'm in the middle of a novel and think back on what I've already written, I don't have much sense of the proportions or patterns the plot is following. This gives me a little bit more of a clue.

Those authors of more stable mind probably don't need to be reminded of what they have only recently written. It seems that I do, and this little "treatment" is what I'm trying for the moment. If that doesn't work, I'm going to try the tattoo approach used by the fellow in Memento (see photo).
I'm hoping I can get by with my current methdology, as the tattoo approach could get expensive.


Frances Garrood said...

I'm not a planner either, David, and enjoy the surprises and the unexpected twists that crop up (often in the course of dailogue). But my WIP takes place over a year, and is divided into six two-month sections, and while I don't know exactly what's going to happen, I know when it's going to happen; I have a length in mind and a basic structure. I've found this enormously helpful. It hasn't stopped me from getting stuck from time to time, but I now know how far I am from the end (about 12,000 words), which is a new experience.

No tattoos, though, although I was thinking of a snowdrop on my thigh (a complcated bet with my niece).

Alis said...

'Perhaps I'm just fuzzy-minded, but I find that when I'm in the middle of a novel and think back on what I've already written, I don't have much sense of the proportions or patterns the plot is following.'

If this is fuzzy-minded then it's common to us both -I feel like this all the time when I'm in the middle of writing a book. I guess if we planned, we'd know the significance of things more as they happen.
Still, you just do what you can do they way you can do it, don't you? (By which I mean 'we')

RDJ said...

When I got about halfway through my last novel (tentatively called The Dispatcher), I decided to start writing out my plans for the next two or three chapters. Just one- or two-sentence notes that explained what story thing would be accomplished in the writing. I found it helped quite a bit, just to give me some reminder of what I was supposed to be writing while still leaving the rest of the story wide open.

With my current project (which I'm about five chapters into) I did this from the beginning. It's only laying out what I'm going to do over the next two or three days, but somehow it provides for me a sense of ... purpose? This is what this chapter is supposed to do.

RDJ said...

I seem to have hit "publish" without getting to the point, which was that this is also serving a similar purpose of revealing the course of the story in miniature for me, as once I'm done, I have a record of what has happened so far (admittedly scrawled illegibly in a notebook) (is that really how "illegibly" is spelled? what a weird looking word).

David Isaak said...

Okay, Frances--that bet may be complicated, but readers still want to know what it could possibly be...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Indeed we can only do what we do, but I still hope for improvement.

One of the last things filmmaker David Lean said was that the distrssing thing about dying was that he was finally starting to get the hang of how you really make a movie.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Ryan--

I know a writer who uses essentially the technique you're describing--he calls it a 'step-outline' as it casts only a few steps forward. And I guess that's what I've now adopted myself--except that I have a paragraph of narrative per chapter in my footsteps behind me.

I find that by the time I get past the middle of a book, whether I make notes or not, that the shape of the remaining story is pretty clear. Oh, I still get a few surprises, but by then there are a few obligatory scenes that have to be accomodated unless one wants to really annoy the reader--and the obligatory scenes create big pillars that determine a lot of the remaining structure of the house.

That was probably as clear as mud. And, yes, "illegibly" is a preposterous-looking word--and not really all that easy to say, either.

Matt Curran said...

As you know I'm very much the planner, David. But that is a curse on it's own - I mean I don't get that thrill of writing into the unknown as it's all mapped out in front me when I type the words "Chapter One". I tend not to plan rigidly but let it be a guide rather than a strict path from start to finish (kinda like using sat nav but ignoring the "turn right" instruction in favour of my own writing instincts.)

These days I would say book-plans have their advantages as it seems publishers and their editors are requesting them more and more. Where that leaves the one third of writers is anyone's guess...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Leaves us one-third up a creek, I'd guess.

I say if you can plan, then do plan. I just don't seem to be wired that way. But I think I'd gladly trade the thrill of the unknown for a little more certainty. (And maybe not. But it would be nice to have a choice.)

Alas, as Popeye says, I yam what I yam.