Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Choosing to Write in Oil or Watercolor

It’s spring in Delaware. Azaleas and primrose in bloom, warm days and cool nights. In celebration of their beautiful garden, some friends recently hosted a large party under a big white tent. They seated me at a table filled with people whose passion is painting pictures.

A few of these people were retired, painting as a serious hobby. Some were studying painting. Others were making a living at it, their work represented in galleries. I found it especially interesting that when asked, “What kind of painting do you do,” the answer was never “abstract” or "landscape" or “figurative,” etc. It was always “oil” or “watercolor.”

One of the oil painters said to a watercolorist, “I could never do that. I prefer the freedom to paint over my mistakes.”

The watercolorist replied, “But that’s what I like about watercolors; you have to plan the whole thing out.”

This contrast, which I’d never considered (not being a painter), strikes me as having a very close parallel in fiction writing: some of us use outlines to create our work and some of us don’t. Some of us plan extensively and others wing it.

In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell observes the distinction between these two camps and concludes that there is no consensus on the subject among successful novelists. Ray Bradbury and Jerry Jenkins are no-outline people. Robert Crais uses outlines. David Morrell’s methods fall somewhere in between.

Where do I stand? I can tell you that I tried several times to write novels without an outline, to set my characters free and see where they went. In every instance, they went nowhere and I had to abandon the project.

Then, for my first completed novel, PRIMACY, I outlined the first two-thirds of the book and finished the outline when I was about halfway through writing. I completed the novel in about a year, though it’s still seeking a publisher.

For my second novel, CADAVER BLUES, which is publishing serially online at The Nervous Breakdown, I first wrote an outline in the form of a detailed treatment, and that book will have been completed in about nine months. More important, my editor, Shya Scanlon, believes that it works as a piece of storytelling, as do most readers from whom I’ve had feedback.

Of the writers I’ve met in workshops, there seems to be great resistance to using an outline, as if it’s a kind of cheat. On the other hand, very few of these non-outline people ever seem to complete novels. They’re great at beginning and usually have some sense what they want to say, but they have very little idea how they’ll get to the end, and the results suffer.

People are different, of course, but I suspect that those successful writers who claim not to use an outline are fibbing a little. They may not write out an outline in the conventional sense, but I suspect they have a pretty detailed plan in their heads. Just because you’re not writing an outline, that doesn’t mean you’re not using an outline.

As with all creative endeavors, however, rigidity can be as great an enemy as lack of focus. Putting something into an outline doesn’t make it sacred, and I’ve found myself ignoring parts of outlines, supplementing outlines or re-working them as the writing unfolds.

In other words, a writer can plan as if he’s painting in watercolors, but amend that plan as if he’s using oils.

E. L. Doctorow has compared writing fiction to driving at night in the fog. “You never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Sure. But it helps to know where you’re going.