Last weekend's work on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was shockingly fruitful. (This brings to mind an image of someone plugging 220V appliances into a navel orange, but only because I'm weird and love terrible jokes.) Not only did I finally crack the entire end-to-end outline on the 4th try, but I started translating that into the scene-by-scene "beat sheet" that will be used to actually write the book.
A work habit that arrived hand-in-hand with me using a wiki to organize novel-length projects was splitting the outline of the project into two documents. The first is the plot summary, a longish document that might be better described as a story treatment. It's a summary of the action, but with a lot of digression, explaining, insights, asides, and so on — stuff that's intended to be running commentary on the material, reminders to myself, explainers to the audience, etc.
Second is the storyline or "beat sheet", a terse distillation of the first item. There, each of the significant moments of action get turned into bullet points. It's essentially a roadmap for me to follow when writing the story, although I leave myself a lot of room to take detours or follow an entirely different road if it comes to it.
The longer and more involved the story, the more sense it makes to break things down this way. Without the plot summary, I don't get a feel for where the story can go, what kinds of detours it can take or what implications things have; without the storyline, I can't even take two steps without my own shoelaces knotting themselves together and tripping me up. One's macro and the other micro; one's — warning, tabletop RPG metaphor here — closer to a setting sourcebook, and the other's more like the actual campaign/chronicle.
A while back I wrote about how I used to avoid this kind of meticulous planning, because I was afraid of losing interest in the project due to spending so much time nose-to-nose with it. I suspect now that stemmed from a couple of things. First was how I wasn't always very good at picking projects that I could stick with; I'd often dive on things that looked good from the outside, but which I couldn't reliably sustain interest in. (When you're young and unsettled, it's hard to know what you want in any aspect of your life.)
The other was a subtle shift, over the years, in how I tended to think about creative projects in the first place, and how those changes led to me being able to stick with the right thing.
I once used to think of everything I produced as being all of a piece — something that existed in its entirety in some part of me I just hadn't tapped into yet (or, if you want to get mystical, in another realm, the way some fantasy stories like to speculate about fiction being the documentation of something really happening in an alternate universe). All I had to do was tap into it, as if I were taking dictation, and the complete thing would emerge like candy from a machine, all wrapped up and ready to go. I even felt like if for whatever reason the manuscript for such a project got lost, I could reconstruct it letter-for-letter by simply finding the original point of entry and following it, like someone navigating through the snarl of Greenwich Village's streets by way of landmarks.
Delusions like this are easy to sustain when you're only dealing with something that covers a few pages. As my ambitions and output ramped up, the delusion proved to be just that: delusional. But I never replaced it with a proper, pragmatic view of the work — namely, that it wasn't something lying in wait for me to discover, but something that had to be created from top to bottom by the decisions made with every word put down.
From about 1995 through 2005 I wrote almost nothing of consequence. A lot of that was due to me trying out a bunch of other projects, none of which were writing-related, but it was the writing that always proved to be the doorstep I always found myself back on. And some of why I wandered as much as I did was because I felt like anything I couldn't just magically pull out of thin air wasn't really mine. I was waiting for lightning to strike, when I should have been out in a thunderstorm, flying a kite with a key attached to the string.
Now comes the paradox. It was in late 2006 when I hatched Summerworld, my formal return to writing as my art form — and that project came out of the pressure-cooker environment of National Novel Writing Month. Maybe that was the trick: I had to be brilliant on a moment's notice, and when I didn't have time to worry about where it was all really coming from, I stopped worrying about whether or not it was something I was tapping into or something I was building on the spot, or just plain building.
Maybe the distinction between the two doesn't seem all that clear when explained like that, but believe me, at the time it made all the difference. It was mainly a matter of attitude and not action anyway, and once I stopped needing to see the work as something that emerged all whole, as a piece and without flaw, I stopped feeling like I'd get bored of it if I had to sit down and comb through it ... and, thus, find out it wasn't in fact the perfect thing it had to be.
Art thrives on honesty; duplicity and insincerity poison the roots. Self-duplicity poisons the soil itself.