Some days the words flow like magic. Characters are clever and say just the right things. The plot twists and curls in the exact blend of excitement and misdirection that will make readers stay up until three am to see what happens next. Scenes and settings come alive with amazing and realistic detail.
Those days, writing feels like the most perfect job in the world.
The past two days have been that way. A blessing, since the previous two weeks were a struggle to write at all. Working on a stage production not only sucked my time away, it diverted my imagination, too. It was a challenge stepping back into Virgilante, remembering all the plot nuances I’d started, catching up with who was doing what, and where everyone was located.
I keep a spreadsheet to help. I fill it in as I go. After writing a chapter, I add a row to the spreadsheet: chapter number, who was in it, what they did, and what day/time it all happened. That’s as much outlining as I do, and technically it isn’t outlining, it’s recording, since I fill it in after the fact. I’ve recently participated in a conversation on Facebook about who does and does not outline. Some create outlines that are so detailed they look like first drafts. I balk at the idea of even a simple outline. The discussion got me to thinking about why I feel that way. I came up with two reasons.
First, when I started working as a programmer, the whole world of computers was new. Programmers were required to turn in detailed flowcharts of all their code. Coding languages were verbose and few understood how to read the cryptic code. A flowchart was vital in case something happened to a programmer and someone else had to take over. The photo to the right is Margaret Hamilton, credited with coining the term Software Engineering. She is standing next to the code for Apollo 11 (trivia for the geeks: she had exactly 64k of memory to get the ship to and from the moon, and to land the module safely on the surface). The NASA heads probably considered a flowchart to be pretty important.
So although flowcharts made sense, I HATED creating them. They took forever. You used a green plastic flowchart template and a pencil (corrections were frequent). You wrote on large blotter paper, which often still had to be taped together into larger sheets, to include the entire flowchart. You had to be sure to use the right shape, and to be sure every box/parallelogram/rectangle/triangle/whatever was property connected to the correct other shapes.
Programming was new, exciting, creative, and sexy. Flowcharting was… boring. I wasn’t the only programmer who wanted to Get On With It. We wanted to code. Not draw little shapes connected by dozens of lines and arrows. Besides, coding from a flowchart, instead of from inside our heads, felt restrictive and unimaginative. So most of us did the next best thing. We wrote our programs (and debugged them), then created the flowcharts to match what we’d written. The bosses got what they wanted. So did we. Maybe that’s why I choose these days to write, then log what I wrote in a spreadsheet.
Second, and this probably also explains why I wanted to code first then flowchart, my mind just doesn’t work that way. I’m a very visual person; an odd statement coming from a writer. But a novel idea usually initially comes to me in a great flash of insight. I may not know details, but I know the story, because I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye. And I must get it down! Now! When I write, it feels like I’m watching a movie in my head, and I’m transcribing as fast as I can. Sometimes it’s like annotating a well-loved movie I’ve viewed many times. Others it feels as if I’m documenting a movie I’ve never seen before. What comes out of my fingers surprises me just as much as it will my readers. Those times are magical. That’s what I’ve experienced the past two days.
My main character is in a much bigger pickle than I’d first envisioned. I still know how the novel ends, but his path to get there is now more winding and has a considerable number of potholes. (Not plotholes!) I’ve written four chapters and over 10,000 words in 48 hours. I had to take a break because I was emotionally drained. When I write, I tend to get deeply into the minds of my characters. When they’re happy, I’m happy. But when they’re traumatized and fighting serious battles, it affects my own energy and outlook. Stepping back not only lets me regroup with my writing direction and double-check that I’m on track, it gives me a chance to renew myself.
Writing my first novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, wasn’t nearly as draining as Virgilante has been. Marianna Morgan, my Private Investigator, is witty, clever, and has a dry sense of humor. The book is a cozy mystery. It was never intended to be heavy and deep, although it has some serious incidents that occur. Virgil, on the other hand, is more like Dexter-lite. He takes justice into his own hands; he just doesn’t end up using plastic sheeting and large knives.
Would I lose that creative magic, that exciting free flow, if I did force myself to outline? I honestly believe so. Outlining, like flowcharting, would feel like torture. Mundane details in little boxes instead of creative juices in the brain. Left brain vs. right brain: although there’s new scientific evidence that the pet theory about engineers being left brain and artists being right brain isn’t as cut and dried as once thought.
Virgilante is now almost 45,000 words. I expect it to be 60,000, give or take, when I type that last sentence (which is already written and saved in a separate file – I do take time to document especially creative flashes of inspiration). Once this draft is done, the real cycle of completion begins: editing, proofreading, correcting, rinse, repeat. That part isn’t as much fun as the initial rush of creating the first draft, but it’s better than flowcharting (or outlining).