Saturday, November 3, 2007

Getting Started

by Darlene Ryan

In general, writers fall into one of two groups; those who outline and those who don’t. I’m an outliner. When I start writing I already know a lot what’s going to happen in the story. Writers who don’t work from an outline--seat-of-the-pants writers--just start writing and discover the story as they go.

I outline because I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to wing it, I’ll never get to the end of the story. It’s why I have to follow a map when I’m traveling, so I can actually get to Montreal or Boston, instead of ending up at the Museum of SPAM* in some town I’ve never heard of. The one time I wrote a book without an outline I ended up with a story I couldn’t sell and no clue how to fix it. Every writer learns—through trial and error and a few melt-downs in front of the computer—what works best for her. (Or him.)

All my books begin with a what-if. In the case of Responsible, my latest young adult novel, the what-if was, What if you did the right thing and it messed up your life? I started thinking about this person who had tried to do the right thing and Kevin Frasier began to take shape. He was HHHtall and needed a haircut. His mother was dead. He was a mediocre student who didn’t really fit in anywhere.

Some writers create pages of background for every major character in a book. Not me. What I need to figure out before I start writing is who the person is—what does he need, what does he want? Kevin wasn’t a jock, a brainiac or into drama. He was a bully by default.

Once I knew Kevin I could work out the rest of the story. At this point in the outlining process I know where the story starts and how I want things to end. And I usually have a couple of what I call “crisis points” figured out for the middle. I start with the first scene, work toward the last scene and keep asking, Now what? Having those crisis points figured out for the middle makes it easier to work my way through the giant black hole between the beginning and the end of the book. After I’ve figured out the main story points, I go back and think about the other characters in the story.

I write down everything that occurs to me as I’m outlining--lines of dialogue, even an entire scene—but for the most part the outline lacks all the details that make a good story. Here is how a scene from Responsible was described in the outline. Just two sentences: Kevin sticks a dead mouse in Erin’s locker. Erin confronts Nick and stuffs the dead mouse in his pocket.

Here’s the same scene from the finished manuscript:

I slid the burger box out of my pack.

There was a mouse inside, gray and black with a long hairless tail and blood, dried brown on its neck. I looked at it, curled in the bottom of its Styrofoam coffin and I thought, I could just shut Erin’s locker and tell Nick I hadn’t been able to pop the lock after all. No. No. I could tell him the janitor had been doing the floors and I couldn’t even get to her locker.

I looked down at the grungy gray and yellow tiles. Nick wouldn’t believe that. No one would believe that.

I could just shut the locker, throw the box in the garbage and go home. Of course I’d never be able to come to school or go anywhere else ever again. I’d heard rumors about what Nick did to guys who went up against him. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get a mouse like this stuck in my locker. I’d probably be the mouse, curled up in a ball with blood on the side of my head. It was me or her. What the hell else could I do?

I hauled my sweatshirt down over my fingers again and picked up the mouse. I thought it would have been stiff, but it was as floppy as a stuffed toy. I set it on Erin’s math book, right at the front of her locker so she’d at least see it first thing. That way she wouldn’t be feeling around for her books and get a handful of dead rodent instead. She was going to freak no matter what.

I felt like the mouse was looking at me, sitting there on the middle of the locker shelf. A cold shiver rolled from my shoulders all the way down my back. “Sorry,” I whispered as I closed the locker door. I wasn’t sure if the sorry was for the poor dead mouse, or for Erin.

I couldn’t get going in the morning so by the time I got to school it was almost first bell. Nick was standing at the bottom of the main stairs with Zach and Brendan and some geeky kid from grade nine who talked way too much. I thought his name was Oliver. I knew Nick was just hanging there waiting to see what happened when Erin opened her locker.

I walked over to them. I just wanted to go to my locker or homeroom, but it would have looked weird if I had. I didn’t look down the hall. We’d know soon enough when Erin opened her locker.

Nick was going on about video games and playing Doom Master. He thought he was hot stuff because he’d gotten to level six in the game. I’d gotten as far as level fourteen. That wasn’t something I’d ever told him, though.

I didn’t see Erin until she was right behind Nick. “Uh, Nick,” Zach said, pointing. I looked around. It seemed like half the school was hanging around, watching. I wondered if Nick had put the word out.

Erin was holding the mouse up by its tail with her bare hand. If she was scared I couldn’t tell. In fact, she was sort of smirking. “Geez, Nick,” she said. “I thought you could come up with something better than a dead mouse.”

Then she reached over and stuffed the mouse in the pocket of Nick’s Zipperhead tee shirt. “Here you go,” she said, giving the pocket a pat. Yeah, she was definitely smirking.

Nick jerked. He grabbed the mouse out of his pocket and hurled it down the hall. It landed with a splat by the water fountain. He wiped his hand on his jeans. He was breathing hard and there was sweat on his forehead. Erin wasn’t afraid of a dead mouse but Nick sure as hell was.

How long an outline ends up, depends on the book. I’ve written outlines as short as two pages and as long as eighteen. I keep going until I know the story. And by that time I’m usually getting itchy to write the book. For me, this is part of the creative process. There are a zillion decisions to make writing a book. I like to get a lot of them out of the way before I start writing.

  • There really is a Museum of SPAM. It’s in Austin, Minnesota.


Susan said...

Nice succinct discussion of a subject that keeps us all tied up in knots. I like the idea of not spending too much time working on back story and instead concentrating on crisis points to lead one through that vast messy middle.
Good job.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I love your example, Darlene. It makes outlining, which I don't do, sound much more flexible than I've always thought it was. I wanted to read the rest of the story! I always take that first step into the mist thinking I can't make it to the unimagined end, but so far, I always have. I do jot down plot points, scenes, and things my characters say whenever they occur to me, but that doesn't mean I'm committed to using them. In fact, most of my notes, whether jotted on paper, typed into the computer, or recorded on the little digital recorder I use while running or driving, start out, "Maybe...."

Darlene Ryan said...

Thank you for the compliment, Liz. Responsible is the first time I've written from a guy's point of view and I was flattered when a young man told me, "I thought it would suck but it didn't."

I'd love to hear more about the writing process from a non-outliner.

The Rohaly Family said...

I don't tend to outline, either, but it doesn't mean I never will. I find that I go in some interesting directions without outlining, but I may try it once and see if I think it makes my writing any tighter.

Thanks for the insights!