2WB dialogs: Outlining vs. free falling

sarah-skydiveWelcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs (2WB for those in the know), one of a series of posts in which we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

This week’s dialog is inspired by an interview in The Atlantic with Andre Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog.

Robine: According to the inteview, Dubus writes his masterful works longhand with a special #2 pencil (who does that nowadays?) in a cramped, windowless, basement closetlike office. I felt suffocated when I read that. It makes me appreciate my new laptop and my office’s view onto the ever-changing woods behind my house.

As Dubus described his writing process, I so wanted to climb into his rowboat with him and his characters as he heads out to sea without a compass or a map, trusting that if he keeps on rowing, his characters will point the way and they will eventually reach some wonderful island.

Or, to drop the rowboat image, it sounds as though the author’s process is to put himself in a trancelike dream state and wait for the characters to come to life and take over the action. And, apparently, in his case they do.

Would that I were so trusting. As bold as that process sounds, I don’t think I have it in my DNA to relinquish control of my writing. I need to know where I’m going and outlining helps me do that. That doesn’t mean that I force the characters to follow the script mindlessly, but outlining gives me a general idea of what the novel is about and the path to follow, while at the same time reserving the right to explore other sights or even alternative paths along the way if the original path is not working.  So yes. I outline. But I do so minimally.

Like one of the people who commented on The Atlantic article, I too would love to read Irving’s take on this topic. According to Dubus, John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules and several other titles, outlines extensively. And who can quarrel with the results achieved by either one of these two authors—one who outlines, the other who doesn’t?

Throwing caution to the winds and writing without a compass sounds oh so daring . . . and tempting. What’s to lose in trying a looser approach?

Denise: Robine, you picked up on something interesting in Dubus’ interview. It seems that he does seek an altered consciousness in the first stage of his writing process. But I don’t think he’s is saying that he effortlessly dreams his stories, passively waiting for his characters to come to life.

Dubus emphasized the role of character in driving plot. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m trying to do this in my current story. Like Dubus, I think my writing gains life and energy when I vividly imagine a character in a given situation.

If character is one oar of Dubus’ rowboat, then the second oar is a gripping situation. According to the article’s introduction, his latest book is

…four linked novellas about love and betrayal in a coastal town. In the first story, a cuckolded man stalks his wife with a video camera; in the last, a young woman’s world is shattered when a sexually explicit image of her surfaces online.

Clearly, Dubus is no slouch at thinking up intense situations for his characters. Given these two elements, the step-by-step actions in the plot should be determined by character. This is where I think Dubus does his dreaming. He focuses intently on trying to capture the truth of the moment for the character. So far, I’m with him. Where I get lost is how to know what those plot actions are.

My current story has a couple of characters that I think are interesting, and a standard fantasy situation, which is a combination of coming of age story and a struggle against a destructive, powerful mythic enemy. But I’m having trouble finding scenes that will move the plot forward. If I were Andre Dubus, I’d imagine the character’s needs and state of mind to show me what scene needs to come next.

Dubus asks himself a lot of questions to transport himself into the skin of his character. He also has a very specific ritual for each writing session, including reading some poems and listening to music, to open his mind. I think of this process as similar to what an actor does in preparing to fully inhabit a role.

I find it helps to try to imagine a character and her environment visually, using photos and even sketches. Maybe that’s something I can incorporate into my writing process to lead me into my next scene.

Robine:  Yes, of course you have to know your characters and they have to drive the plot, but I say a general map of major events–for example, that X will rape Y, which will lead to a series of events that will culminate in a fatal accident– provides a structure that is reassuring to me, even if some of those events need to be rethought or revised later.

BTW, I checked out John Irving’s writing technique  He has a most original way of writing.  He starts by writing the last sentence of the novel and then works back from there to discover where to begin the novel.

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