Beautiful Confusion: Outlines and Other Processes

Often people ask me how extensive my outlines are for stories or novels I write. It’s at this moment that I look at them with a blank look, my best Lebowski impression when he’s seated at the desk of the Malibu Police Chief, and ask, “Outline?”

The truth is I am more of the organic type when it comes to creating fiction. In the past I have tried to outline a novel from beginning to end. It felt too…constricting? I blame Gilbert Sorrentino and his novel Mulligan Stew. I read that book years ago (and no I make no claim to have “gotten it”…much the same way with other writers like Pynchon, Cortazar and others). Anyway, I think that’s what planted the seed in me where I let my characters take me on the journey. At least I think that’s what happens. Or maybe it’s some subconscious reaction to being on guided tours when I was a boy.

It helps to know how my story will begin and how it will end. Actually, no. That’s not true. I often don’t know how things will end. I guess that’s the beauty of it. Or the confusion of it. Or maybe the confusing beauty of it? Beautiful confusion? Whatever the case, it works for me.

I have done the journeyman legwork, reading Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces along with a small hill of quality books on fiction writing. I have read good fiction, bad fiction, trashy fiction, you name it. I am a firm believer in learning from it all; either to know what works or what doesn’t. More importantly, I am still learning. Along the way I have written some pretty horrible stories, and some gems I am proud of.

Other writers may be different. Other writers may, right now, have sticky pad sheets or index cards of all shapes, sizes and colors pasted to their walls; or if they are more tech savvy perhaps they use a spreadsheet program or one of those fancy expensive outline programs. None of this is bad. There is really no right or wrong. Writing is a process of discovery. If it was anything else, like brain surgery or plumbing, I would have given up years ago.

The other thing I do is write first drafts in longhand. Call me a dinosaur, but that’s how my mind works. I do jot notes down from time to time, but mostly I like to let it stew a bit before I even put something down on paper.

I would like to hear from other writers. What’s your take? To outline or not to outline? And if you do outline how extensive is it? Or if you’re more like me what’s your process?

Leave a comment. Thanks.

Mind Candy: The Winged Monkey on My Back

So, I have a confession. It’s big. But not the “there are bodies in my basement” or “I wear ladies underwear under my suit” big. Because I don’t. No bodies. No ladies underwear. Well, actually, I can’t say for certain about the former because I live in an apartment. Technically speaking, there may be bodies beneath the concrete of the building’s basement, but I didn’t put them there. If I did that would mean I would have had a hand in pouring the foundation and I would have been only…what? Four years old when this place was built? Ditto for ladies underwear. Unless of course you count the boxers I’m wearing…My sister used to wear boxers as shorts when that was all the rage in the 1980s. My sister is also a lesbian with a loving partner and two children. She’s pretty much well-adjusted; even if she plots out her work attire on a calendar a month in advance. I guess we all have our little quirks. But you stick by your family, no?

Here it is. The big confession. I just finished Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot tonight.

Yes, I am a closet horror fan. Sure, I have read many great writers: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Woolf(Virginia), Wolfe (Thomas), Garcia Marquez (how I detest going into a bookstore and finding his work with authors whose names begin with ‘M’), Joyce (of course…although I’ll save my take on Ulysses for another entry one day…it’s not pretty), Rushdie, Auster, Pynchon, Dickens (I still have nightmares), Eliot (George…not T.S.), Bronte (Emily), and too many others to list here. But horror is my mind candy. Always has been, always will. Crap! I should have thrown in Stoker and Shelley (Mary, of course) in my list…

 Growing up, I read my fair share of Stephen King. One week I stayed at the Jersey shore with a high school sweetheart and her family and read The Stand (the old version…the properly edited version…not the money-making scheme with original pages tacked on). I also remember Firestarter scaring the crap of out of me.

 There’s that word again…crap. That reminds me of a discussion (yes, I am digressing) I had with my son about people who curse too much. My father used to say that people who curse too much (alluding, he did, to the fact that there are boundaries within which profanity is called for?) did so because they lacked the vocabulary to express what was really on their minds. My son never met his grandfather. So I shared this sage advice with him. Then my son asked me if it was true. To wit, I told him “how the f*** should I know?” True story, by the way.

Anyway, back to the master of the macabre. Carrie never interested me. And by the time Misery hit the bookstores I was well on my way to becoming the literary giant you see before you, shunning my mind candy for the pursuit of more lofty works of fiction.

Over the past few years, I pursued and will shortly receive my MFA in Creative Writing. During my stint in graduate academia I had to put the brakes on and quit feeding the winged monkey on my back with horror novels. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being seen with a cheap paperback by the likes of King, McCammon, Clegg, etc as much as it was the reading load I was responsible for each semester. I had no time for recreational reading.

So it happened one night a few weeks back I went out to my local Barnes and Noble (because there are no more bookstores left in the world save for the used one in my neighborhood that some nights smells like a cross between wet cat and cooked cabbage). There I purchased Salem’s Lot because I had never read it. I no longer blow through books within a week. Then again, I’m not sixteen years old anymore so there are some things I have to do more slowly and other things I do more quickly which is quite embarrassing, but this is hardly for the forum for that sort of boudoir humor. Tonight marked nearly two weeks since I started the book.

I am on the fence, however. Aside from the vampire angle, which was probably the last book in recent history that pulled off the old-fashioned take on bloodsucking undead creatures, I had a huge problem with the main character Ben Mears, a writer who comes to Jerusalem’s Lot to overcome a childhood fear and perhaps write a book about it. Why a writer? I suppose you would have to ask Mr. King that. Mears could have easily been a carpenter, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a snake oil peddler, or some sort of hobo. Another pivotal character in the book knows more than Mears about vampires and that was, for me as a reader, rather unsettling. Still, say what you want about popular fiction but I think Stephen King is a good writer. His job is to tell tale and use the suspension of disbelief to his advantage, drawing the reader into the world he has created. I suppose this is what Mr. King has mastered. And for good reason, given how long he has been in the game.

Tonight, I will begin Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was another classic that I had missed growing up. There were plenty of other Bradbury books and stories along the way, but this particular book I’m looking forward to. Bradbury, perhaps even more than King, makes it all look so effortless. And for a writer like me I think that is important.

To draw the reader in while appearing, at least on the surface, to make no effort to do so is, in my humble estimation, the mark of a good writer. More than that, it takes a certain finesse, I think, to convince the reader that he is actually in the world the writer has created. The reader should never have a clue that what is unfolding on the pages before him is something made-up; an artificial representation of a world can be disastrous. We’ve all read those books. That’s why I think Stephen King will be read decades from now. When I tell people this they scoff and make George Plimpton faces at me; as if I am some sort of kook who wears ladies underwear or keeps dead bodies hidden in my basement. And that just shows how little some people know…about what good writing is…not the other things…

…the winged monkey on my back is gnawing at me…time to begin Mr. Bradbury’s book.