As noted in an earlier post, I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title). Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog. My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.
Hermes on the Path
I happen to be the sort of writer who loves the onslaught of ideas that hits me daily, who feels trapped by outlines. Yet that very onslaught makes me the sort of writer who MUST have an outline. I know this because the first draft of my completed adult novel weighed in at 711 pages. It took me five years and sixteen revisions to get it down to 300 pages. I just don’t have that kind of time any more (not that I did then either).
This time, I started by envisioning a query letter, went ahead and wrote the “plot summary paragraph,” and used that as inspiration. I allowed myself to write fifty pages, just enough to get a sense of my twins, their family and relationships, then forced myself to write an outline. As you’d expect, this was when the process really started to take off.
I’m following my outline in the same way you follow the path on a hike through the woods. Sometimes the path is clear; sometimes there’s a fallen tree across it. When you go around the tree, you discover another path, partly covered by moss and vines, but leading somewhere nevertheless. You check it out, because you’ve got a feeling it might be something worth exploring. Five times out of ten, you’re glad you did.
There’s a big difference between planning and doing. Who hasn’t traveled somewhere new and arrived to discover that the weather is warmer, colder, or wetter than they expected? Who hasn’t had to buy an emergency raincoat or Infant Tylenol? Who hasn’t arrived home and unpacked a heavy sweater or swimsuit that never got worn? Packing for the journey, you take informed leaps of faith, but only when you get there do you see what’s practical, plausible.
It’s the same way with plot points in an unfinished novel. My outline keeps me grounded in my knowledge of how the book ends as well as some Big Deal Events that will transpire along the way. For example, Dad and Oliver have a huge row–over his dancing and orientation–which leads Oliver to leave home (Big Deal Event). Later Oliver is taken in by a Brooklyn couple in exchange for cleaning their home–which he considers eons beneath him, but does because he has no where else to go (also a Big Deal Event). But why–in a city full of friends and family–does he have no where else to go? How is it that there’s no alternative for a budding ballet star but becoming a houseboy?
To answer that, I had to look for off-path tools. One example is a beautiful Persian cat named Hermes–the pet of a friend Oliver stays with–who triggers an unforseen but severe allergic reaction. Hermes is not in my outline, but Oliver’s handling of the situation is essential to the plot.
As Oliver’s image grows sharper, so do my instincts as to how he should grapple with the specific obstacles in his path. Regarding Hermes (pronounced like the designer, not the Greek god), Oliver toughs it out for as long as he can, consuming large quantities of antihistimines, refusing to admit how much he’s suffering.
‘After three days, I’ve found some solace in the right dose of Benadryl and Advil Cold and Sinus. The sneezing subsides, though I’m wired now, twenty-four hours a day. The mania helps my dancing. I’m back on top in terms of jumps and turns and attention too, though my heart is usually racing to beat the band. When I do sleep, I awaken with my eyes glued shut, the cat’s tail languishing against my neck like the scarves that bear his name …
‘Hermes the Cat becomes a metaphor. If I admit how he affects me, if I admit I’m allergic, then I’ve admitted defeat. My father wins …’
Oliver is starting to flow for me, more quickly than Olivia, partly because he is less like me than she is. I’ve spent so much time writing as him, trying to learn him (speaking to and remembering those who have inspired me to create him). It’s Olivia I’m working on now. Today’s task will be to flesh out the story of the twins’ mother, who is very ill. I have yet to determine her ailment, only that she is largely incapacitated as a parent. I’ll use Olivia’s narration for this, which should help me refine her voice and character.
In any event, as long as I know I can revise my outline as needed, sticking in devices like Hermes along the way, I’ll never feel constrained by it.