Rob Walker continues to interview his four pen names – Stephen Robertson, Glenn Hale, Geoffrey Caine, and Evan Kingsbury.
Rob: Let’s throw this on the table for discussion. Do you gents prefer to outline or to work like some free range chicken clucking away irrationally for food? Okay, maybe that’s not the best metaphor. But I seriously want to know if any of you do outline more than the rest of us? Is it necessary to have the ending firmly in mind before you begin? Is it necessary to plot out the entire story before you put pen to paper? Is this an essential ingredient in controlling the plot dynamic?
Geoff: Whoa, how many questions is that? But I do like your term plot dynamic. I had to do outlines for my editor on the Stroud novels as he demanded them. However, he knew early on that it was just a blueprint, and he encouraged me to not be a slave to the outline—which I wasn’t . . . ever.
Glenn: I never met an outline I stuck to slavishly. In fact, writing outlines is a painful process in my opinion. Like Geoff, I had to submit one for my editor so she had something to work from. Editors like the brief, tidy tidiness of an outline. They can duplicate it and use it during an editorial meeting to determine if they will buy the book in question.
Evan: It’s the old three chapters and an outline; it’s standard in the industry with large publishers.
Stephen: Standard for smaller publishers seems to be the entire novel finished.
Rob: You’re all evading the damn question. Which do you do in practice, say when you are not courting an editor or trying to sell the work but during the crafting of the work, do you build it piece by piece on the basis of knowing where you’re going or exploring where no one has gone before? Do you prefer outlines to free form writing? Do you begin at the end or the opening chapter or scene?
Geoff: I write the first three chapters before I think of doing any sort of outline.
Glenn: Oddly enough, that’s my working habit as well.
Rob: So neither of you have ever begun a book by writing the last chapter first and working backward to create a tightly crafted outline of a novel that would lead you directly to the ending you had in mind in the first place?
Geoff/Glenn (simultaneously): NO, never!
Rob: What about you guys, Stephen? Wanna jump in here?”
Stephen: I did four novels, none of which I knew the end to until I got there or quite closet to there. I have never written to a preconceived ending. I have to admire those who can and do, but it’s never worked that way for me. I write chapter one and see where it leads. I do my best to open with something startling, something hair-raising, a scene or first chapter with a cliffhanger, plenty of conflict, tension and see where it leads on to.
Evan: What the others are saying, Rob, is that we may have alias but we’re a lot like you in the way that we work, and add me to the list of those who can’t abide telling the story from beginning to end in an outline as once it’s told a story can’t help but get old. I like the story to unfold in a fresh and even organic flow, from a stance that if I do not know what is coming on the next page, then I’m pretty sure it will come as a surprise and a twist to the reader as well.
Rob: Come on, not one of your books you’ve plotted to a preconceived ending? Not one?
Geoff: Following the dictates of editors, I’ve been forced to “plot” outlines, yes, so I have a beginning, middle, and end in said outline, but no, even in having to do a “forced on me” outline, I write it in the same manner. Opening chapter one dictates what comes next, and next, and so on. I have never written the Last Chapter of an outline or a novel first, no.
Rob: And that works for you?
Geoff: For three novels, yes. The thing of it is the novel structure is episodic, so I write in an episodic frame of mind.
Evan: The lad’s got it right. Imagine if you will a chapter one or scene one opening with four, five pages, maybe ten, during which 20 questions are raised by the circumstances, the setting, the characters, the props, the dialogue. This is how I do it. I create a moment of crisis—start in the middle of a highly charged emotional and physical moment in time for the characters on the page, and what they say and do raises eyebrows and questions.
Stephen: And the rest of the novel is spent answering and resolving those questions raised in the mind of the reader from the get-go. The most elemental being, “Do I want to spend time with this guy/gal/detective/shrink/maniac/lady-in-drag-doctor?
Rob: Careful now. So what I am hearing is that you all have pretty much stolen my working methods for yourselves?
Glenn: Stolen is such a harsh word. We took our lessons, did we not, at your feet, and your Modus Operandi in crafting the novel is shared by hundreds if not thousands of authors who’ve come before you. Thousands others plot first and ask questions later, so to speak. Or rather write to a puzzle ending or a surprise ending or a twist ending, or one that ties up every conceivable loose end before it can get loose.
Rob: But don’t you wind up sort of writing yourself into a corner when you have no notion of where you are going until you get there?
Geoff: What a hypocrite you are, Walker. You have written yourself into more corners than all of us combined.
Evan: Yes, but he always manages to write himself out of said corners, right, Rob?
Rob: I’ll ask the questions here.
Glenn: It’s rather simple for anyone who can picture a fat ball of twine and beside it a ring. A short story is a ring. Beginning of the story is as close to the end as the beginning and end of the ring. One geography, one tightly written character usually with ancillary characters of less consequence, one problem or question to resolve; whereas the novel is a winding ball of twine and at its core, deep are the revelations, the aha moments, the discoveries, but to get to the answers you have to pull the thread of chapter one, two, three, etc. And as others have said here, those curious questions are raised on the first pull and our hero doggedly seeks answers and resolution and often redemption by the end of the longer work with many settings, many important characters, and many questions to be resolved.
Rob: Nicely put, Glenn. You’ve been so coherent since you gave up the bottle.
Geoff: I look at it like the X-Files. We have to compete with visual effects, mood music, all of those green monsters, so our questions raised have to be extremely good, and they must fascinate us as authors. So this notion of devoting prologues and opening scenes to raising the hair on the back of the necks of readers is extremely helpful.
Evan: All the same, anyone who can create a novel by virtue of outlining and outlining heavily, and those blessed souls who see the LAST chapter full-blown in their heads FIRST, more power to them. This is their working method and it’s to be respected.
Rob: I think we can all agree to that. Many rivers to the ocean. Gotta respect anyone who can put together a moving, emotional, action-packed, fun to read novel anyway he or she can do it. What’s chiefly important is that a writer find his or her way, how her mind works, what makes him comfortable. If writing and pecking about like a loose goose over a patch of grass is not your style, if writing more like a calculating, determined
Stephen: Maybe we oughta to’ve discussed writing effective dialogue.
Glenn: Yeah, you can break any rule of writing within the confines of quotation marks.
Rob: Maybe we’ll save that for next time. Meanwhile, just want to add that whatever moves the action and story along, whatever reveals character, this runs the forward moving dynamic of the novel. Whether you write tight or loose, outline or write free form, the important thing is that the reader is swept up in a compelling tale. Whatever method, approach, how-to that works for you and makes the work compelling, that’s the ticket. The secret is to find the right voice for each story and one thing I urge younger or newer authors to do is to read as a writer reads. Most every how-to book on writing has a chapter on reading as a writer to learn from others who’ve come before you.
Evan: Sorry we collectively have so little to say on how to outline or how to organize a novel, but that’s just us now isn’t it? I know that if I plot too heavily—that is with heavy hand—then the story comes to a grinding halt for me. I draw up an outline for those who need it—agent or editor—then I go write the novel.
Rob: Perhaps an organized writer will guest blog here one day and tell us how it’s done. As to writing oneself into a corner, it the challenge of writing oneself out of dead ends that often result in the most original work.
Geoff: There’re no outlines in life, so why rely on one in fiction? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rob: Sounds like you all like to work without a net; that you work passionately and dangerously and sloppily.
Rob: Think we’ve exhausted this topic—at least among us. In the meantime, thank you all for again coming and for your time and input. Until next time.
At the next round table, Rob and his AKAs will discuss dialogue.
Meantime Happy Writing,
Rob Walker et al . . .