Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Facing reality: Re-working your outline for the greater good of your novel

With any new year, most people take a moment to come up with resolutions for the next twelve months. Lose weight, find a new job, travel, etc. I'm usually hesitant to tack on life-changing edicts to a kind of pointless holiday, but I did find myself coming up with a rather long list of overall 2009 "to-dos," which I won't get into here in detail. But, thinking over things I want to accomplish in the next year really brought to the forefront something I haven't dealt with in my head over the last few months.

I don't really like the book I'm writing.

Some background, for those of you new to the adventures of King Suckerman (me): I've been working on my first novel for about six months now. It's titled SILENT CITY and is set in Miami. It tells the tale of Pete Fernandez, a burnt out journalist working a dead-end copy editing job for The Miami News after the death of his father and the subsequent flaming out of his once-promising sports writing career. Pete's basically a wreck, drinking his life away and meandering through what little he has to be awake for. He gets a call out of the blue from the father of one of his formerly close friends, Kathy, asking him to check in on her. What Pete discovers leads him into a story of murder, intrigue, backroom drug deals and the realization that while you may never be able to reclaim the life you once lead, you can always move forward to create a new one.

I saw the book as part crime novel in the vein of Pelecanos' A Firing Offense and Lehane's A Drink Before the War and, later, to some degree, Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. A nice, short (200-250 pages) detective story that would (ideally) set the stage for more adventures with Pete but also be the story of how a person who has no desire or inclination to be a private eye at page one ends up realizing it's in many ways his salvation. On a secondary, but arguably more important level, it would also show how friendships can evolve and die over time, specifically the dissolution of Pete's circle of friends and how, as we get older, we deal with more and more people but find that we are only close to a small handful, only interacting with people we know because we know them, and not so much because we like them. So, part crime book, part Rick Moody/The Ice Storm with a dash of Miami flavor to set the scene.

I started off sprinting -- 50 pages in the first few months. Most were written in jags of 10-15 pages, usually on Saturday mornings with jazz playing and coffee brewing. I got into a good routine. But there was a problem -- I had a general idea of where I wanted the story to go (Pete gets call, Pete searches for friend, hilarity ensues...), but the minor plot points that make a good detective novel -- the clues planted early on, the friendly character who turns out to be not-so-good later on, etc. Not cliches, per se, but things that you would be able to generate with more planning and a better sense (detail-wise) as to where the story was heading. And, more importantly, how it was going to get there.

About 40 or so pages in I decided it was time to write up an outline. This is where the trouble hit. I found a structure I was relatively happy with -- every third or fourth chapter would be a flashback sequence involving Pete's past: his friends, his father, his job; these flashbacks would hopefully add some perspective for the reader, showing a more jovial and human Pete and giving them a sense of why these friends were once important and how they've changed in the process. The main novel thread would follow Pete as he stumbled toward solving the main crime, which involved a number of current and former friends and the seedy Miami drug underworld.

After writing a first pass of the outline and getting some feedback from some members of the league, I realized that a) a lot of the flashback chapters were inconsequential, if not repetitive and b) Pete didn't really DO much. Most of the book, if it was going to be written based on my initial outline, dealt with Pete reacting to what others were doing. In the end you were left with the same guy, but everything was sort of resolved and things were looking rosy. Basically, the outline needed some serious work. Serious work that would probably involve going back and rewriting the 50 pages I already had in the can and was relatively happy with. You see, if the entire structure of the book is off, it doesn't matter how great the first few chapters are.

So, that brings me here. I'm not happy with the outline, but I'm procrastinating rewriting it because I know it could potentially mean tossing everything I've done or changing it significantly. When it came time to see what my goals were for the new year, finishing SILENT CITY was definitely one of them, but how to do it?

The bottom line is, I need to rework the outline. Maybe Character X shouldn't die in Chapter Y, or whatever. But I need to dive in knowing that this new outline, which ideally will be stronger, could potentially mean that the work I put into the book initially might be lost or made unrecognizable. Only now am I really coming to terms with that and feeling OK about it. It happens. You try one thing, it doesn't really work, you try again. I just need to get back on the writing horse.

Anyway, most of my posts here usually deal with stuff going on outside my laptop or movies I've seen/books I've read, but since this group is about the experience of being a writer, I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences so far. I've been researching general plot techniques to find the method that seems best suited to my writing style, but I'm open to suggestions.