Long couple of weeks, lots going on. Mostly trying to make progress on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, and ran into several examples of what I call "street-level problems" with a manuscript.
Constant readers may recall I long had an allergy to planning stories from the top down, and that I only started writing outlines and keeping detailed notes when my projects got too big and unwieldy for any other kind of approach. On the other hand, there's realizations you can only have with a story when you are between one word and the next with it, and not when you're flying over it at 30,000 feet. I've touched on this before, but it was in conversation with friends that I finally verbalized an old metaphor I've used before.
If you're going to drive from New York to Los Angeles, the easiest way to describe such a journey is "Get on Route 80 West and keep driving." That'll get you to where you want to go. What such a plan won't do is provide you with any details — what rest stops to take (or avoid), what sights are worth detouring off the interstate for, and so on. Those are often things you can only discover while you're in the car, buzzing along, looking at the signs going by.
The worst thing you can do when creating a plan for a story is treat it as if it were the only plan that would ever exist. It's a starting point, not a destination, to use another metaphor I find myself applying to any number of other things. If in the middle of writing a scene you realize you're coming up with a far better plotline than the one you had mapped out, then by all means change the map.
Now comes another revelation. Changing horses mid-race is something not to be done for the sake of gratifying an urge for novelty. I'm talking about the whole rush of "What if we did this? What if we did that?" authors can find themselves possessed with. A certain amount of this, in the early stages, is fine; authors need to jam the way musicians do. But at some point, the jamming gives way to an actual composition. You know what the story is about and where it ultimately needs to head, and you gain an understanding — sometimes rational, sometimes intuitive, always there in some form — of what belongs and what doesn't. (Scorsese, again: cinema is about what's in the frame and what's out.)
The whole question of how you know what you're doing in the first place deserves its own post, so I suspect I'll follow up on that later.