One of the more common issues that surfaces during writing workshops and seminars has to do with planning and outlines. A lot of people who want to become professional writers talk about being unable to get anything done because they have so much trouble creating an outline to work from. A common assumption is that fiction is telling a good story, but it's really much more than that. It's about creating an experience for the reader. A piece of fiction doesn't simply describe a series of events; it sets up the action in a way that the reader forgets he's sitting at home in an armchair and virtually lives through it.
That's probably easier when the narrative deals with everyday experiences, like romantic interludes or confronting an angry neighbor who thinks your German Shepherd killed his cat. It can become a serious challenge when the reader is being put into a starship and sent off into the night.
However that may be, waiting until you have an outline to follow is a mistake. I've told this story before, but it's worth repeating. A long time ago, when I'd just started my writing career, our local library brought Ursula LeGuin and Michael Bishop as guests. The three of us were to conduct a seminar on creating salable fiction.
During the course of the seminar the outline issue came up. Many of the persons attending these events will admit that, while they've been trying for years to write fiction at a professional level, they've never actually submitted anything to an editor. In fact, they often say, they haven't even been able to finish the outline.
Of course, if a person never sends anything to a publisher, that individual's chances of making a sale are fairly low. But that's an issue for another time. Let's talk about the outline. Or maybe just listen to Ursula's evaluation. It was too long ago, so I can't quote her, but her position was that outlines don't matter. Know your characters, know the setup, know where the basic problem lies. And let them take over. The writer can introduce issues or details, but the ideas will flow from the situation and the characters, and the only way you can give them a chance to participate is to get to the writing. Later, talking with Mike, I realized he shared her perspective. If you're trying to write to an outline, you're probably losing opportunities.
At the time, though, I was surprised. Shocked, almost. Planning, I thought, was everything.
In a way, there's some truth to that idea. But it's not everything. It's not even a substantive part of the process. I couldn't resist stating my position at the time, that you have to know where you're headed, that you can't just make it up as you go.
Of course that's not really what Ursula was trying to say. We want the reader to be there with our characters as the storyline develops. Which means we have to be there too. I'm working on a Hutch novel, during which she and her team discover a planet that was once a high-tech world that, 20,000 years ago, was ripped away from its sun. The details of how it happened are irrelevant, but it's been a rogue world, adrift ever since in brutal cold.
Hutch's team finds it. As written in the first draft, they orbit it a few times, looking down at a dead landscape, with frozen cities crushed by ice. And then they move on. When I looked at it later, I realized what I'd missed.
The reader has to be brought in. Describing wreckage seen from orbit doesn't do that. You have to go down in the lander and take a look. What do you find? Maybe a bar, with a jacket hung over the back of one of the chairs. Frozen, of course. Maybe a theater where they come across what looks like an oboe, and wonder what kind of music they had. Maybe, finally, a kindergarten classroom whose cabinets are filled with once-cuddly animals and toys long since frozen. I'm not sure what else. Still working on it.
Thanks, Ursula and Mike.