Andrew Pyper vs. Sheila Heti: To plot... or not?
We've teamed up with The Next Chapter to present The Canada Writes Literary Smackdowns, an essay series in which authors sound off on various writing topics. No writers were injured in the making of this series.
Battle One: Andrew Pyper argues why a plot outline is his best friend. Sheila Heti begs to differ. Are you on Team Andrew or Team Sheila?
I have this theory.
If you conducted a massive study into the reasons why unfinished novels are unfinished (don't attempt such a study, by the way, if prone to depression or narcolepsy), you'd learn that the number-one cause isn't taking a day job or "writer's block," but the absence of an outline. Those sad, yellowing bundles on the floors of closets are potentially good stories that got lost in the fog.
What is an outline? To me, it's less an instrument of predetermination than a narrative companion, a reminder of a project's core intents. It shouldn't force you into places you don't want to go but, like a friend in a bar at last call, it can tell you when it's time to shut up and move on.
Spontaneity. Inspiration. The whisperings of the Muse. These are the romantic wellsprings of artistic creation that are most often cited as being lost when one employs the grubby mechanic's tool of an outline. For me, however, it's never been an either/or thing. I use outlines. But I am also visited by voices, awakened in the night by unpredicted new directions, taken happily off guard. You can have a map and still get lost. But hopefully not as lost.
The practical virtues of using an outline are countless (at least I haven't counted them, though I'm sure there's a lot). Here's my personal Top Five:
1) Instead of returning to where you left off yesterday (which can feel like shouldering a boulder up a mountain), an outline lets you jump around to different scenes, stitching together a quilt instead of knitting a long scarf. For example, if you're horny, go straight to a sexy bit! If contemplative, do the part where she looks out the window at the mountains.
2) As you write, an outline can let you know how close you are to finishing. It is the parent telling you "Almost" when you cry "Are we there yet?"
3) You wouldn't marry someone after a one night stand, would you? Then why start a novel without testing where it will go? Trying to outline what seems like a great idea—but isn't—saves a lot of time and heartbreak.
4) Everyone knows that endings are the hardest part (followed closely by beginnings and middles). Even if it's only a single image, having an endpoint down on paper can lend tonal coherence to the whole project.
5) An outline always has the answer to "Now, where the hell was I?"
Can a work of art be created by putting down lines, then colouring in those lines? What do any of us know about the world? Do any of us know so much that we can put down lines, and have these lines resemble nature more than they resemble other works of art? What the brain can come up with—thinking and planning and foreseeing—is only what it knows and what it has seen before, not what it does not know.
I am interested in what I do not know, not what I know.
What I know is only what happened to me before, or what other people have told me is so. But in the moments that haven't existed yet, there are truths none of us can predict, and as an artist I want to be there for them, creating out of those moments. I haven't been there yet, none of us have, it's exciting, and it's the unknown. It is in those future, untouched moments that I want my words to come into being.
In a romantic relationship, I may have all sorts of thoughts and fantasies about how it might go—some paranoid and despairing, based on how my parents' marriage went—some bright and hopeful, based on a romantic film I once saw. But nothing of what I imagine is ever what comes true. What actually goes on in the unfolding of time is something new to me; what no foresight could have depicted; always more complex, always more interesting and more of a surprise.
I would rather make art the way I live—inside of time, in collaboration with it. What occurs outside of time can only be a reconstitution of moments past—so dull.
If I write a story or a book, and it takes many years or editing and reshaping—or if some passages come like a gift, each sentence a surprise—then I am pleased. If a book evolves truly out of a collaboration with time, then the reader can no more predict its course than any person can predict the course of her life.
A writer who uses an outline begins as a master—a master-planner, a God—and then becomes a slave, labouring year after year to create an icon resembling the picture in that master's mind. I would rather be neither master nor slave. I think that can be done.
Sheila Heti is the author of several books of fiction, including the novel How Should a Person Be? Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Believer, Bookforum, The New York Times, and The Globe and Mail.