Some of the difficulty stems from allowing my characters to get themselves into situations that don’t fit with the overall plot. Ah, the plot! Clearly, the whole business would have been more contained if I’d worked to an outline. But how does one develop an outline? My only experience is of launching myself into the story and producing an outline alongside rather than in advance of the first draft. While this worked reasonably well for my forthcoming second novel, Underneath, it took me years to find the structure for my debut, Sugar and Snails.
So why not write the outline first? Because the to and fro of a hundred scenes is too complex to work out in my head. Yet as soon as I let it out of my head to work it out on screen, paper or post-its it dies. It’s not until I’m writing it as a story that I believe it can be one. Or care.
I think my fiction takes shape through a repeated interaction between the characters, their situation and the language I discover to describe it. It’s like spinning an ever wider web – although sadly in my case not as beautiful as a spider’s – but I don’t know my characters until I see them in action and I don’t know their story until I find the words. Although I can’t produce the eloquence I crave in a first draft – or even in the final published version – there’s no doubt that when I find the right word, phrase or image it helps progress the story.
But I might have stumbled upon a strategy for creating an outline that works for me. Early last month, I had an idea for a short story that I was bursting to write. Before I’d finished the first draft, I began to suspect and it might turn it into a novel. I have to say I surprised myself as, although at over 3000 words it was longer than many of my stories, when my ideas emerge, I usually have a clear idea of whether they’re suitable for the shorter or longer form. I’d never previously dreamt up something that might work as both.
I completed the story, edited it and liked it enough to send it out into the world to test whether an editor might like it too. Using the events of the story, I outlined thirty possible (short) chapters and prefaced these with another ten. (The short story starts with a shocking event but, in the more relaxed pace of the novel, I thought this would work better a quarter of the way in, with a different kind of shocking event to get the ball rolling.) I think I’m on target to reach the midpoint of about 40,000 words by the end of this month. There’s a good chance I’ll complete the other half during National Novel Writing Month.
So far, I’m finding I have plenty of scope for new discoveries as I go along – which I deal with by the amending the outline – but with the security of somewhere to go on those days I don’t feel so inspired. I’ve also noticed that some ideas that work really well as a single sentence in a short story, don’t transfer to credible scenes in the longer form. As a novel is not an extended short story, and neither is a short story condensed novel (although I do read Alice Munro’s stories in this way), I’m encouraged by the fact that it DOES evolve – and I wonder if I’ll still like the short story when I reached the end of the first draft of this novel.
Meanwhile some good news about my short fiction: I’ve won this year’s Ilkley Festival short story competition. I was really looking forward to sharing the story with you but, as they don’t have a policy of posting the complete stories on their website, I’m able to put it through another edit resubmit it elsewhere.
If you work to an outline, how do you develop it? Do you have any tips about keeping the right balance between discipline and novelty as your novel develops?