Friday, June 18, 2010

Organized Chaos

by David Ellis

When I think of the qualities that go into being a good novelist, organization is not one of them. I think of imagination and creativity and courage and insightfulness. I think of someone poring over a sentence, looking for that perfect word that captures the essence of the moment. I think of someone closing their eyes and letting the inspiration of Beethoven’s Fifth wash over them. I think of someone listening, observing, questioning, obsessing, dreaming.

I don’t think of someone creating an Excel spreadsheet.

But the longer I write books, the more I realize the importance of having my act together beforehand and as I go along.

One way is advance outlining. I don’t always do it and I know our community is all over the place on this. I hear that Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline don’t do it at all. James Patterson outlines every chapter and preaches it as gospel. Me, I never used to do it at all.

But as time has become tighter for me since I took this job with the government (that’s right, folks, I work longer hours for the government than I did in my private law practice, stereotypes notwithstanding) and my kids were born, I have realized that I don’t have the time to head down one path, only to realize later that I need to turn around and change direction. I don’t have that week to waste. I don’t outline every single thing, in part because I lack the discipline and in part because I know that I’ll call audibles as I go along, anyway, but generally plotting something out in advance has become more a part of my writing than I ever thought it would be. It’s also more fun than I thought it would be. The best parts of my novels are the parts that I didn’t write but dreamed up in my head as I outlined, only to be spoiled when I actually had to translate that brilliant idea to paper.

Another organizational tool is keeping track of what you’re doing as you go along. I’m talking about keeping a chart of some sort that chronicles what you’ve done in each chapter. I never used to dream of doing that. But now I like it. It helps you keep control over your book. You get 300 pages in and the thing gets unwieldy, yes? You wonder how many times you left this clue, or that red herring, or that information about character. You want to know how long you’ve gone without major action, or how long ago you reminded the reader of something that is so important that you want to emphasize it, but not too often.

It also helps with revisions. Your editor makes one of those maddening general comments about how there’s not enough of this or too much of that in the book. It’s easier to digest that comment if you can see your novel from the big picture. With one of my books, I only did this after the editor came back with her comments. At that point, I thought it was necessary to see the big picture to understand what she meant. The result? I couldn’t believe how much I learned about my book from this chapter-by-chapter chronology. To any of you out there who haven’t tried this, I highly recommend it.

I want to add a couple of additional things at the end here, unrelated:

1. Scott Turow’s new novel, Innocent, is brilliant. He’s always been my favorite but he continues to amaze me. When it comes to drama and the law, this guy is playing chess, the rest of us checkers.

2. I haven’t said a word about Blago and his trial. I did predict in an earlier piece that he would go with the “clown defense” and that’s partly what he seems to be doing; that and the I-was-duped-by-greedy-friends defense. I’ve been waiting for him go with advice-of-counsel, as some have predicted. But that would require his lawyer to go along with it, and who knows if that will happen? In any event, riveting theater. Who can predict what a jury will do?


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