Thursday, February 19, 2015

Which Way Did I Go?

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?

I graduated college with a degree in mechanical engineering. I like plans, schematics, and spreadsheets. Formulae, laws of physics, straight lines, sharp corners, curves described by elegant mathematics. I believe in ORDER.

My name is Alan, and I’m an outliner.point a to point b

If I tried to write something without an outline, I have full confidence it would devolve rapidly. I’d start writing a scene, and everything would be fine for a few  minutes, but before too long it would go flying off the rails. For instance, have you ever had an argument with someone, but ten minutes later, you’ve miraculously switched positions? Which reminds me of a book I read once, where the characters’ back stories kept shifting, making following the chain of events difficult, at best. Not as difficult as rocket science, but still hard. Did you ever wonder how these advanced 3-D rendering technologies have changed the way engineers design rockets? And rockets are way, way cool. Maybe I should write a book about people hijacking a rocket and settling on Mars. Mmmm, Mars. I do like their chocolate. And if anyone is interested, I prefer dark chocolate. I understand it’s actually healthy for you. And I’m all about the health. Hey! Squirrel!

But I digress. (If you couldn’t tell, I often write these blog posts by the seat of my pants.)

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. Outlining. I outline, but when I say I “outline,” it’s not like how we were taught in third grade. Nothing formal whatsoever—no Roman numerals, no subsection 12-G-IV-c, no indenting. First, I map out how the story begins. Then I plot out how the story ends. I also like to pencil in some of the major turning points along the way. Then I fill in the scenes that connect these “tent poles.”

Sometimes I have a good idea what a scene should contain, but often my outline consists of little more than: “Scene 14: Joe and Sue meet in the old chemical plant. Joe tells her something shocking, and Sue runs off, slips, and falls into a vat of hydrochloric acid.”

I should make it clear that I’m not a slave to my outline. I view it as a living, almost-breathing entity. When things change (and boy, do they ever), I change right along with them (or should I say, I change my outline right along with them). In my writing workshops, I tell outliners that if things aren’t working, consider changing your outline. (Similarly, I tell pantsers they need to change their pants (ba-da-bing!).)

Sometimes I wish I had the ability to just sit down and start writing (with the reasonable expectation of producing something decent). That’s right, on some level, I envy the pantsers. So carefree. So happy-go-lucky. So…Bohemian.

But even if I did write more by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I don’t think anyone would ever confuse me with a free-wheeling, spontaneous artiste. And that’s something I’ll just have to learn to live with.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


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