This week I started reading a book on writing called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Although Truby usually focuses on screenwriting, this book, he says, covers novels as well, in terms of looking at how to develop a novel-length work. In the beginning, he tells you to put aside your traditional methods of structuring a story (hero's journey or three acts) and approach it from a new perspective. Initially, this means putting character and premise together and looking at how and why your main character changes during the course of the story.
So off I went. I've been working on a new novel, but having trouble with the first few chapters. I had already worked out the plot - what would happen, the climax, etc - but I couldn't work out how to get my characters to that point (one problem was a jump of two weeks with nothing happening). I decided to use Truby's initial planning steps to try to work out what was missing in my story. I answered all the questions, I had the premise and story design, I figured out his seven key steps for story structure (weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation and new equilibrium). It seemed to be kind of working for me.
Then I stopped. I remembered how I had done a similar thing once before for a novel, and in the end it was no help at all. It made the novel into something I had never intended, and something I had a really hard time writing - and getting right. After eight drafts and some major changes, I think this novel is still not working. I tried too hard to "make it right" before I wrote it. That's not the best way for me to work. I got too cerebral about including all those key elements that a story should have, and lost my grip on character and voice.
Character and voice, for me, is what counts most in making a story work. I can always come back later and fix plot holes or add tension or rewrite beginnings and endings. But if I get off the track with the character, if I analyse or diagnose or try to put that character into a straitjacket of shoulds before I tell my story, I kill everything. I start doubting what I'm doing. I lose the voice. And strangely enough, I have a much harder time keeping the plot together.
I think that's one of the things we have to learn as writers - what our happy medium is when it comes to outlining. I mentioned in another post that mostly my outlines are diagrams and lots of scribbled notes. It took me a long time to realise that, messy though it seems, that is what works for me. That, and sometimes a grid of major scenes to back it up. No outline at all makes me extremely nervous, because I need to know where I'm going. Too much planning and setting down what must go into the story freezes me up.
So no more Mr Truby. I'll read him again when I'm much further into this novel, and the character and the momentum are leading me where I need to go. Your happy medium might be starting with one sentence and then writing into the wild blue yonder. Or it might be a 50 page detailed outline of each scene. How-to writing books are great, and often very useful, but you also need to know when to put them down and just write.