By Bob McCrillis
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do. How many times have we heard that old saw?
There is an ocean of advice out there for the would-be author. We have our choice of webinars, seminars, boot camps, and retreats. Each one promising that, with their system, we will release our inner book. Trust me, I’ve drunk deeply from this well. No matter what course or system, step one is always, always prepare an outline.
I diligently took notes on such arcana as story arcs, critical turning points, characterization, and the primacy of points of view. According to the books, my next step — the first that called for actual writing — was to prepare my outline. The more detailed my outline, the better. The outline should include major and minor turning points, and the critical conflicts. My next task was to complete detailed worksheets describing my characters. With that done, writing your novel is mere word play.
To this I say, Balderdash! And again, Balderdash!
In forty years as an unpublished novelist, I’ve tried every version of the outline approach. The result was a series of flat, uninteresting, dull pieces that even I was too bored to finish. And no, I’m not advocating that we wait for divine inspiration – writing is a craft, after all. What I needed was a way to keep me excited enough to keep writing.
Some well-regarded literary authors began masterpieces with nothing more detailed than an idea. Pearl S. Buck has written volumes on the impact of radical social change. I’ve been told that some best-sellers started as nothing more than a cool title.
I was able to finish a novel for the first time by trying a different approach. This secret process? Writing.
By starting to tell a story, I began something exciting. It might not turn out to be the story. I didn’t care. Even if I just broke it down for parts, the material will be useful for something.
I can illustrate the process with a quick description of how I wrote Intersections. The fuel for the novel was my personal anger over our indifference to combat-related PTSD.
Since I wanted to talk about the effect of combat on people, I needed a character. He’s male and, in my mind, returned home physically well.
Next question: what war? Some of the returning soldiers from WWI suffered from shell shock. Our guys coming home from WWII and Korea might have battle fatigue. Post-traumatic stress afflicted some Viet Nam vets. The condition is now shortened to PTSD for the men and women who fight the wars in the Middle East. After more than a hundred years, what we considered a form of cowardice we now see as a mental health issue. But we still don’t know how to treat it — and often act as if we don’t care. The most relevant for me was Viet Nam.
At this point I have a Viet Nam combat vet who’s come home. I started writing about him getting off the freedom bird in Los Angeles in 1969. How did he feel walking through the terminal? Did anyone notice him? LAX smells different from Tan Son Nhut. Was he in a bunch of guys? Did they run into protestors? How about seeing a major facility not protected by sandbags. Seeing girls? American girls? In crazy colors and styles?
Something triggered a mental trip back to the battlefield. Three Asian men coming the other way? A sound? My hero had to struggle to drive the vision of over there with what he knew he was seeing here.
Telling this story excited me. Working to visualize the experiences of my hero kept me at the keyboard working for hours.
When I wrote from an outline, the scene came out more like this. “Harry came home on a contracted Braniff 727 and landed at Los Angeles. He had post-traumatic stress but could usually keep it under control. A protestor called him a baby killer and earned a broken nose for his disrespect.” Imagine 300 pages of that. Not too exciting.
For months I invented characters and situations as I went along. To highlight how my hero didn’t fit into civilian society, I put him in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. For his love interest years later, he meets a Puerto Rican girl in an AA meeting. With each step I discovered more about my story. And it was a blast.
When I got to 110,000 words, I stopped adding and started cutting and rearranging. That’s where I did the left-brain analytical and organizational work.
Not very efficient, you say? You’re right. But, in those 110,000 words was an 85,000-word novel that might even be good.