The Human Condition:

On Outlining a Novel – May 13, 2012

Writing fiction is easy for me—provided I know what I’m supposed to write. With even a general idea of what the next scene should be and how the action and dialogue are supposed to advance the plot, I’m ready to go. But without this idea, I stare at the computer screen—which once was a sheet of paper rolled around a typewriter platen—and I literally know nothing. My mind is an echoing blank. Gray space between two lobes. Empty. Waiting. At once anxious to begin and bored with having nowhere to go. Not even waiting for something specific to happen, like a train or bus to arrive. Just … waiting.

Now, in order to start writing, I don’t need all the action choreographed in my head: the character does this and his opponent does that, cut and thrust, gambit and response, like the next twenty moves in a preplanned chess game. I don’t need all the dialogue programmed for me: the character says this and his opponent replies, point and counterpoint, remark and laughing return, like note cards laid out in order on a table. In fact, it’s better that I don’t have the scene too precisely defined, because then there would be nothing to discover from within my imagination. But I do need to know there’s a scene needed at this point in the story and how it fits into the overall sequence or plot of the novel.

Oh, and I do need what I call a “downbeat.” That’s the starting point, the first line for me as the writer and the first thought for the point-of-view character—a sight or sound or other sense image, a discovered fact, a perceived disjunction or discrepancy—that gets him or her moving toward the necessary action and dialogue. Without that downbeat, my mind and the character I’m following are like a piston stuck at “top dead center,” pushing at the crank pin without any sense of direction. But once I think of—or sometimes just randomly select1—a downbeat image or thought, my little two-stroke word generator starts up, putt-putt-putt, and I’m off into the dark corners of my mind where all the possible images, actions, and bits of dialogue are waiting to be discovered.

But all of this presumes that there are, somewhere in my mind, characters already chosen and defined at some level and a structure—a plot, an action sequence, a shadow of a life—into which the current scene will fit like a brick into a wall or a domino in a trail. For me, the difference between having a book to write and a book idea that sits idly in a folder somewhere is this sense of structure. Let’s call it an outline.

Some people think outlining is easy. As I’ve said elsewhere, when I was young and just starting out, people would tell me confidently, “There are really only seven plots in all of literature.”2 Writing should be easy, then, because all you have to do is pick one of the plots and execute it with some new characters in a new setting, like Ian Fleming finding a new villain and a different locale for James Bond’s next save-the-status-quo adventure. When I probed these confident people for specifics, however, they would mumble something about “boy meets girl … boy loses girl” and peter out, unable to name more. Today, they might mention “the hero’s journey” after mythologist Joseph Campbell, or talk about “action defines character” and the “three act structure” after screenwriter Syd Field. But these are just general story arcs, like telling the writer there have to be mountains in the landscape, some conflicts and challenges laid out for the main character. Stories, however, live through specifics: Which mountains? What conflicts? What challenges?

So where do stories come from? I can’t speak for other writers; they may indeed have discovered those seven plots or perfected the hero’s journey so that they can smoothly and professionally turn out yards of story per day. But I can no more sit down and “think up” a plot than I could sit down and conjure a sunrise or a rainbow. And I can no more steal another writer’s plot and fit my own characters and setting into it than I could steal Fred Astaire’s shoes and use them to become a dancer. No, for me, the story has to arise organically, piece by piece, from within my own mind.3

So … what are the steps from nothing to something? The way I go about outlining and writing a book is roughly this:

1. Get an Idea

All of my books start with a kernel of an idea. “What would happen if a tiny black hole fell into the Earth and started absorbing the core?” (The Doomsday Effect) “What would it take to recreate the life of Julius Caesar in 20th century America?” (First Citizen) “How would an otherwise honorable man react if one mistake from his distant past suddenly showed up in town?” (The Judge’s Daughter) Right now, I’m working on two new book outlines. One started with the question, “What would life be like for the first generation of people who lived far beyond ‘three score and ten’ through cellular regeneration and cloned organs?” The other started out, “What would happen if a man got sick of his job, bought a boat, took off on a cruise, and never came back?”

These ideas are not particularly new or unique, but something in them caught my fancy, suggested a deeper story line, got me thinking. Because they are not unique, I don’t have any concern about sharing the new book ideas publicly like this. You or any writer out there could start with such a question; the book you end up with will look nothing like mine. Fred Astaire’s shoes, remember?

None of these story ideas is complete and ready to write, either. It’s a kernel, a seed, and not the whole tree. The next step is to revisit that seed at regular intervals, and keep asking, Well … what would it be like? And then see if any new buds or branches sprout.

So each of these story kernels starts as a question in a Word document. It goes into either a folder on my hard drive labeled “Book Incubator” or, if it seems particularly promising, into its own folder. Just for curiosity sake, I also put a date on the file so I can backtrack and see where it all started.4

2. Incubate and Fertilize with New Material

My mind works slowly and mostly at the subconscious level. Characters, plot elements, background details, bits of realization and dialogue have to occur to me, bubbling up from those subterranean catacombs. As I come across interesting articles, book references, or internet sites that bear on the story, I add them to the folder.

The idea that became The Doomsday Effect started in the late 1970s. It went in the direction of the black hole eventually destroying the Earth and forcing humans to hurriedly undertake interstellar flight in generation ships. When that story line turned out to be a dead end, I had to find a way to solve the problem—or adjust the black-hole-sinks-into-Earth premise in such a way that it became solvable. The result was the novel you have.

The idea that grew into First Citizen actually started about the same period, the late ’70s, with the thought of writing a scholarly book on Julius Caesar, about whom there wasn’t at that time a popular biography. The idea morphed into a modern speculative novel when I realized that (1) I have no real taste for scholarship, being a storyteller, futurist, and inventor at heart, and (2) the ancient Romans practiced a complex system of religious and political beliefs full of obscure notions, minor deities, and complex rituals tied to the cursus honorum, or course of public offices, all of which I found tedious to contemplate and difficult to work into a novel. And none of them represented the real essence of the Caesar character anyway. My reading of Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America at the same time suggested the sort of national disintegration and civil war that had made Caesar’s own life come alive. And so the book idea morphed into a present-day novel about a young lawyer caught up in the civil strife of a politically broken United States.

The story about the man with the boat dates back to my youth, when our family owned small cabin cruisers and spent summer vacations touring the canal systems of eastern Canada. That notion remained untried and amorphous until I thought about putting it together with the son, William Henry, from The Judge’s Daughter and making a sequel with him as a dissatisfied professor of humanities during the political upheavals of the 1960s.

The story about cellular regeneration is much more recent, beginning with some lectures I heard while working at my latest corporate job, writing articles at the biotech company. Of course, just having people live longer is interesting but does not make a story. So the next step was to give it a set of characters from a failed novel I had been trying to write about mining icebergs for the Saudis, drawing on my experiences at the engineering and construction company.

My story ideas tend to gather details, like layers of moss and sediment, for a year or two. Then they meet a disjunction—“That won’t work!”—and suddenly change direction, like the black hole story. Or they languish inert until I realize that they belong with something else in the incubator, like the boat cruise joining the professor’s story, or the engineering family living longer through cellular regeneration.

3. Parcel Action into Chapters and Scenes

When a story idea and its components reaches critical mass—and that, again, is a matter of subconscious rather than conscious decision—then it’s time to begin making a book. What constitutes the material included in that “critical mass” is bits of action and dialogue, written as a way of trying out ideas and attitudes; notions about the overall plot direction and where it will end up; and characters selected with their names, aims and intentions, and positions in the possible action.

Now is the time to begin putting it all together. To use another landscape analogy, so far the plot has only been seen from orbit. If I were looking down on a view of the continental United States, say, I only know that the story wants to start in San Francisco and end up somewhere in the Northeast—maybe New York, maybe Boston—but not in Mexico or Florida.

Going from the orbital view down to 30,000 feet is to begin putting character actions with those bits of activity necessary to move the story across the landscape. In the case of the boat story, when does the professor buy the boat? What comes before that, forcing the decision to buy it? What does he have to do after purchase? When does the cruise begin? Does his wife Jane come along? What does Jane think about the boat? Or, in the cellular regeneration story, what does the character who gets a newly grown heart want to do most? Who opposes or helps him in this action? How do I match a story told over several medical episodes with a life action that will occur over several decades?

Once I have answers to these sorts of questions, it’s still not possible for me to sit down and start writing. If I try, I’ll still be at the level of “bits of action and dialogue.” So the next step is to get out the state maps and road atlas and start walking the story across the ground. This means defining, still fairly broadly, the actions, encounters, twists of fate and decision, random surprises, and natural consequences that collectively make up the story. Here I move at the level of individual chapters and scenes.5

Not every scene is fully defined—as noted above, sometimes it’s better to leave room for creative inspiration—but each step in the action is known and put in order. This is where logic takes over from subconscious direction. I have to ask questions like, “If Jane has a mental breakdown, how does she get out of the hospital? Does she wait for release? Discharge herself? Break out?” And, “If Jane breaks out, how does she evade security on a locked ward? How does she avoid recapture?” Logical answers to these questions lead to next steps, which lead to more questions and answers. I have to walk the ground.

Sometimes—often regularly—the logical next step and its consequences force me to throw the whole book, or at least the current part of it, back up into orbit. I have to put bedrock ideas on hold, switch off gravity, and begin shoving huge blocks of story and time around into new configurations. Events become plastic. Characters change their natures and positions in the plot. This happened recently in the new book about cellular regeneration. I had been stubbornly pushing at a story line involving the two main characters in some kind of concerted action with a beginning, middle, and end. But that single action had to be couched in a story arc that logically covered a century or more through changing social, political, legal, and technological conditions. When I realized the disjunction, the whole book became skyborn.

When a book goes into the air like that, I have to move quickly to put everything in some sort of sensible order before gravity switches back on and the plot goes into free fall. But, somehow, the story, the book outline, my concrete thinking about the book, always comes together. Still, outlining a whole book or even just the next part of it can be a nerve-wracking and troubling experience.

Ultimately, I emerge with a patchwork of sorts—some scenes firmly detailed and others gooily glossed over—that I think is strong enough to walk on. Then I go off for a day or a week, take deep breaths, equilibrate my head, and come back to start finding the downbeats and turning scene notes into production copy.

And so the book is under way!

1. The amazing thing is that, usually, an arbitrarily chosen image works just as well as an inspired one. Of course, the arbitration comes from the same place as the inspiration—down there in the subconscious, where the various parts of my brain are busy manufacturing the story. In some ways, however, a writer must treat freedom of choice like a surgeon. When faced with a new patient’s torso—skin and fat layers covering the organs that need attention, which are known only through remembered anatomy classes and a general experience of the human body, but which in this patient are known only through shadowy images on an x-ray—the surgeon might agonize over finding exactly the right place to cut, the absolutely best angle for the blade, the most economical length of the incision. Choices are infinite and knowledge limited. Delay too long while seeking this perfection, and the surgeon soon wants to put down the knife and walk out of the operating room. But the experienced surgeon knows that, within certain broad latitudes, it doesn’t matter where you cut. You make the incision—and then you make it work for the surgery you’re there to perform. And the writer has the advantage that, if the scene is botched and goes off track, it’s easier to start over than it is for the surgeon to seek a new patient.

2. See Some Thoughts on the Writing Craft.

3. As noted above, I’m strong a believer in the subconscious. Day-to-day awareness—the “I” that chooses pancakes rather than oatmeal for breakfast, or decides to take the car in for service today, or remembers to stop at the store for milk—is only the surface level of the mind. We evolved in complexity. Just as a million simultaneous chemical reactions define the activity of each cell, and a million cellular interactions define the life of the body, so a million neural interactions define the life of the mind in the context of an ongoing shower of sensory data and memory recalls. Systems operating within systems sort the inputs, coordinate the responses, store and retrieve the facts and perceptions. We have not one brain but at least three: medulla oblongata, cerebellum, and cerebrum, the latter divided into two hemispheres with separate functional areas, plus a number of separate and distinct structures that coordinate various types of awareness. It would be a miracle if all of this resulted in only one stream of thought and consciousness.

4. True story! I had an idea on file in the late 1980s, “What if scientists were to extract dinosaur DNA from insects trapped in amber and recreate living dinosaurs?” Of course, that’s not a story yet, and when I next visited the file I added, “Suppose they made a mistake in the coding?” I had to stop thinking about that one in 1991 when Michael Crichton brought out Jurassic Park. Even though my story, if developed, would have been very different—not necessarily about a failed flea circus/theme park on a jungle island—my premise was just too close to Crichton’s and would have become a me-too in the reading public’s view.

5. Since I tend to write books with multiple viewpoints (see Writing for Point of View from April 22, 2012), and I have a rule about following one viewpoint scene with another from the same character, this is also where I begin parceling out the action and understanding to one character or another.