Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jumping the Tracks

Guest blogger Joyce Alton, who is the secret identity of the all-powerful Clippership at AQC, provides words of wisdom about when the best laid writing plans go south and don't want to come back.

Outliner: A person who pre-plots a story and follows a plan.
Pantser: Someone who jumps in and writes without a premade plan covering start to finish.

I’m both. It depends on the story. But I do tend to lean more towards Outliner these days. I like having a focus and to be able to pick up where I left off without having to go back and re-read everything I’ve already written.

So the question is, what happens when you are an outliner and the story jumps the tracks? You’re going along, everything’s falling into place the way you originally thought it would, and then you write yourself into a corner, or a character decides to ditch the script, or you get a really great idea that had nothing to do with the original idea but would make the story a lot better.

If this makes you feel panicky or upset, I recommend to keep breathing for starters. Don’t clutch your hair or kick the cat. Get up and go for a walk, down a cup of water, go do the dishes. Chill out.

One of my mantras is that nothing is written in stone, especially outlines. 

In fact, chances are, you are going to have to rewrite that outline almost as many times as you rewrite your story. Perhaps more. And that’s a good thing. Take real life for example. We can have a plan that we’ll grow up, go to college, get married, have a couple of kids, move up the ranks at work, and own a home by age 30. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But it’s good to still have goals and a plan. A writing outline is the same thing. 

We know what the story is, we’ve planned out the steps to get the reader from Point A, to B, to C, and finally to D. It doesn’t mean the story will end up that way. So what do you do? Your hero is supposed to be on a certain street at a certain time in order to save his friend’s life from a burning building. But somehow, your hero got sidetracked back at work with a project his boss threw out at him last minute and which ratchets up the tension of your side plot. Is your story doomed?


It’s just taking a more natural course. Stop and think for a moment. Suppose the friend is killed in the fire. How can you use that instead? Was the rescue scene merely to give your hero brownie points? If he was supposed to make a vital discovery during that scene, are there other ways he can find this information out? If it’s absolutely crucial for the friend to survive, what are the new repercussions you can use? Does he now resent your hero for not meeting up with him like they were supposed to? Is he badly burned or crippled? How does this change his role in the story? How can you use it to get back on track to Point C? If you can’t, change Point C to something better.

That’s one of the things I love about writing, especially before you let anyone else look at your work. Nothing’s set in stone. Entire story threads can be ripped out and rewritten. The only one who will know is you.

I’ve had key scenes mapped out in my head before that the story never reached. Disappointed? Sure. But trying to force those scenes in always ended badly. Readers can tell when writers are forcing the story line or characters. Some of the tell-tale signs are unbelievable character actions and reactions, or motivations; moments where something miraculous and unexpected is thrown in to save the outline; or too many conveniences in the plot. Outline must not come before story telling.

Story telling is a natural art form. It should flow. If an outline isn’t working, the story won’t be flowing. It’s time to ditch or revise the outline. Revising an outline is a whole lot easier than rewriting an entire story. Outlines are shorter. Having to rewrite a forced story is a pain in the neck and ego. 

Better yet, keep your outline simple from the start. I wrote a book in two weeks using this method. I had a general story summary in my head. For an outline I wrote down a list of fun titles for fourteen chapters. That was it. Then I wrote. I had a goal and was able to stick with it, but I’d left myself enough wiggle room to have fun and play with the story. It developed into something more organic, with twists I didn’t think of before. And yes, the ending came out a little bit different than I originally thought but I liked the result better.

Your story will jump the tracks despite careful planning. Look at it as an opportunity to re-imagine the story, to stop and evaluate what you’ve already done and whether you like it or not. Embrace the changes, don’t fight them.

Read more of Joyce's thoughts on her blog, Yesternight's Voyage.  It's sort of like getting fire straight from Prometheus, only with a lot fewer ravens.

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