Outlines and Mise en Place

In the beginning, there was the Outline. Or there will be. (Will have been?)

Having more or less run out of usable ideas for short fiction for the moment, I’m diving back into the project I had earlier: expanding Where Do They Bury the Survivors? to novel length. I approach with some trepidation, as the number one piece of advice I’ve gotten for writing novels is to organize. Organization will set you free. Organization, however, is not my strong suit.

I’m starting with an outline. An outline, for these purposes, is just a very flat telling of the story. (“Buck Mulligan goes up to the top of the tower to shave. He prattles on to Stephen Dedalus, brings up his mother’s death, and does not seem to understand why his friend is mad at him. He urges Dedalus to ask the Englishman lodging with them for money.” etc.) This is the stage, I’m told, where it’s easiest to make changes. It’s a blueprint, basically.

At the outset, I have certain goals. I know what the main arc of the plot is going to be (basically, the same as the novella I’m basing it on). I know how long I want the novel to be: 70-80,000 words, according to advice I’ve received about how long a first novel should be. I know that I want the mystery to be fair.

In the process of writing the outline, I’ll be creating a number of additional things: a map of the space station, for example, a list of characters (including notes about anything I mention: this person is bald, this person is left-handed, etc), a history of important prior events. I’m toying with the idea of actually building a model of the space station out of Legos or something so that I can keep track of where everyone is at certain points. I suspect that might be overkill, though: it would probably be easier and more manageable to just run off copies of the map and mark them up.

These things together form a mise en place and recipe all in one: If I have no other ideas, at least I can go straight through the outline, filling in details from my notes, and have in front of me a basic finished first draft.

It’s funny. All the advice I’m getting seems to boil down to: spend as little time writing the first draft as possible. Spend time beforehand on prep work so that you know where the story is going and what has to happen. During the writing, just focus on getting words on paper, and plan to edit later. In that respect, it’s kind of like cooking a stir fry: You spend a lot of time getting ready, because once you put the wok on the fire you have to just keep going, you can’t stop to prep something or get something from the fridge or answer the phone or whatever, or else everything prior will get overcooked. You also can’t easily taste as you go, so a lot of the seasoning gets done at the end.

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