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How to Write a Novel Without an Outline
Some writers out there might have objected to Shawn Coyne’s outline-centered approach in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.
Staurt Horwitz would agree. He hates the term “outline”… so he calls his system a “method.” I wondered if this was just semantics, but after reading both his books, Book Architecture and Blueprint Your Bestseller, I was convinced he has a unique approach worth studying.
Interestingly, Horwitz is used to coming at a book, like Coyne, as an outsider intent on evaluating it. In other words, he assumes the writer has a draft and now wants to do know what revisions the book needs to make it better, or make it “work.”
Coyne was working for a Big Publisher, so he learned to distinguish a viable commercial novel from a lovely but niche literary novel from a novel with no obvious readership at all. Coyne’s first loyalty had to be to the publisher, and, indirectly, the reader, so his question was: Who and how many would pay money to read this novel?
Horwitz worked for many years a Book Doctor. That’s a private content editor that authors who can’t get Big Publisher’s to buy their novels turn to in order to figure out how to make their books better. Or sometimes the writers don’t even care about publishing their book. It’s a private project, like a memoir or a spiritual declaration that they are writing for themselves. And then there are the deluded writers who think they can write something completely idiosyncratic, personal and possibly insane, like their True Life Memoir Novel about their Alien Abduction which is a Romance, Thriller, Historical War Story and a Spiritual Text for the New Cosmic Age as well as a transcription of Xthoww’s Infathomable [sic] Word, all at the same time…and they are convinced this will be a bestseller.
Horwitz’s job is to please the writer not the reader, even the demented followers of Xthoww’s Infathomable [sic] Word. He doesn’t ask if anyone would ever want to pay money to read his client’s books, but only strives to help each writer achieve their own vision for their novel.
In Blueprint Your Bestseller he provides 22 steps to revise a book draft, and these steps include finding your one sentence Theme, creating a Target with concentric circles of how closely a scene illustrates this theme and then figuring out which of your scenes are actually hit anywhere close to the Target. This is a great technique, but it still doesn’t tell you if your Target is the right one to aim for if you want other people to want to read your book.
Say you think you are writing a mainstream Romance, but your theme is “True Love Isn’t Enough,” and your story ends with the couple separating. (Maybe, as in the original ending of Pretty Woman, you have the heroine decide to go to college instead of getting her man.) Every scene in your so-called Romance novel could bullseye that target. It’s still not going to fly.
In fact, in Blueprint Your Bestseller, he tries to apply the same advice to nonfiction and fiction. To me, the needs of nonfiction and fiction are so different than any catchall approach waters down what is most important to know about writing each one. It’s much easier to see if a chapter is “on target” in a nonfiction book than in a novel, for instance. Repetition means something entirely different in nonfiction than in fiction. Finally, nonfiction its own multiple genres, as does fiction, none of which are differentiated by his method. (I still found Blueprint Your Bestseller a useful and worthwhile read, but for my purposes, Book Architecture, which hones in on fiction with many case studies, better matched my focus.)
However, although for me, the commercial viability of a book is an important consideration, it’s not my only consideration, or even (to my husband’s consternation) my main consideration. We all know of books that are so formulaic they feel emptied out of real content. Indeed, these kind of books are what give us a horror of formulas in the first place. I want my stories to be riveting, but I also want them to be beautiful.
Charles Baxter discussed this ineffable feature of a story in an essay in his book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction.
It’s customary to talk about effective language or effective dramatic structure in fiction, but almost no one ever talks about beautiful action. At first glance, it’s a dubious category. For years I have wondered how to define beautiful action in fiction, and whether it’s even possible. I don’t mean actions that are beautiful because a character is doing something noble or good. I mean actions that feel aesthetically correct and just–actions or dramatic images that cause the hair on the back of our necks to stand up, as if we were reading a poem. My conclusion is that it often has to do with dramatic repetition or echo effects. I think of this as rhyming action.
…When we see two similar events separated by time, it’s as if we are watching an intriguing pattern unfolding before we know exactly what the pattern is. I don’t think that the pattern has to explain itself to be beautiful. It doesn’t even have to announce itself. In fact, I think it’s often more effective if the echo effects, the rhyming action, are allowed to happen without the reader being quite aware of them.
I love this idea of “rhyming action,” but how to employ it? Horwitz, although he doesn’t call it “rhyming action,” gives examples from well-known novels and novellas that illustrate this technique. As in his first book, Horwitz shows the method in action at the simplest level first, in a Children’s story, “Corduroy.” (This does make the method clear, though it also shows how even a Children’s book is much, much more complex and harder to write well. This explains why so many people think they could “easily” write a Children’s book…after all those books are short!… but they can’t.)
He applies the method to The Great Gatsby and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to Catch-22 and to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, as well as to the shooting scripts for Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network. (You can see how some of thee stories have a more exclusive readership and some have mass market appeal, so even here, he doesn’t give any help figuring out whether your book will be commercial or literary.)
All of this might sound as though there’s nothing useful in his method, however, which is not true. Horwitz’s method is useful in shoring up some of the weakness of the Coyne/Bell model.
Coyne, like James Scott Bell, often illustrate their Narrative Structure formula with movies. Many of the rules they lay down, especially Bell, apply well to mass market movies and novels with a linear structure: a single hero, a limited period of time marked by a deadline, an A-plot supported by a B-plot that kicks in at specific intervals….
What about story that spans years, decades, or centuries? What about showing multiple points of view? What about flash-backs or flash-forwards? What about introducing cultures or whole species that are unknown and alien to the reader? How does the 15-point Bell Formula handle that?
Pretty much, it doesn’t.
It gives you a place to start. But you need more.
What I love about the Horwitz method is that it shows how to handle complex novels: multiple points of view, multiple timelines, and multiple storylines. It teaches how to braid storylines.
I have only one more grievance with Horwitz: his choice of term. He calls the central feature of his braiding method a “series.” But since every single novel I write is part of a series, in the usual sense of being part of a connected universe or even single narrative arc, I find this term more than distracting, I find it downright vexatious. It confuses me every time I see it. So, I’m not even going to use that term in my blog. I’m renaming it a Reiteration.
Reiteration: The repetition and variation of a narrative element, such as a character, a setting, a relationship, a symbol, or a phrase, so that it becomes dynamic and creates meaning. Each repetition with variation is an iteration of the narrative element.
Reiteration Arc: A Reiteration must have at least two iterations. If it has at least three iterations, it also has an arc. This can be a Narrative Arc, following the Aristotelian structure of rising and falling tension, or it could follow its own logic of ups and downs. Even in a commercial book, not all the Reiteration Arcs need be Narrative Arcs, if they are the storylines of supporting players, or if the type of Reiteration is a setting or a phrase. One of these Arcs will be your central storyline and the others will be supporting story elements.
Reiteration Grid: A Reiteration Grid allows you to track all your Reiteration Arcs visually. You can use graph paper or an Excel file to write track each arc in parallel columns. My method which I learned from my father is to color code each arc/PoV scene on different stick-it notes and put them in a notebook.
Reiteration Target: Each Reiteration asks a question—the same question in every iteration. The final iteration answers the question. Examples of Reiteration questions are, “Who is the murderer?” (Each clue is an iteration.) “What is the heroine’s secret?” (Each instance the secret prevents her from declaring her love for the hero is an iteration.) “Will the One Ring corrupt even the good-hearted hobbit?” (Each time the hobbit puts on the Ring, or is tempted to do so, is an iteration.)
Theme: Every Reiteration question relates to a single overarching question for the book, answered by the end of the story. This question is simple and timeless, which means that standing alone, it may sound cliché, as naked, timeless truths always do. Justice will prevail. Love is more powerful than prejudice. Compassion has a strength beyond mere brute power.
Next, I’ll look at how this method can help us write a Genre book along with a strong Narrative Arc, which is of more interest to me than a literary novel that may or may not have a traditional plot or clear ending.
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Amen. You say “outline,” I run screaming; Mr. Horwitz says “method,” I’m in. I attended a Horwitz workshop with the Redwood Writers branch of the California Writers Club this spring and it was a game-changer for me. His tools for discovering the shape of a novel work while preserving all of the surprise and weirdness that comes up in drafting. Can’t recommend enough. Thanks for this really thought-filled review.