I spent most of the vacation break and the following week bashing on a revamped outline for the final third of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Hence my protracted silence. Once again, what was meant to be something fun and free-spirited has turned into a Mission with a capital M. Do I regret it? Nah. Besides, wrestling with it helped codify a way of working on these things that didn't previously have a explicit methodology: the "self-dialogue."
Here's how I put it in a conversation with a friend. Let's say you're working on a story outline, much as I was. The way I approached this was by trying to turn it into a dialogue, rather than just a list.
Consider a bullet-point outline. The first level of the outline is just the plot itself:
The second level of the outline is a discussion about the implications of the plot point, all the things that center around it. The third level is answers to the questions brought up.
The point's not just to hash out each plot moment and set it in stone, but to make the process of doing so a discussion, and to make that discussion explicit. You take the voice that you use to talk to yourself when you work on something, and you give that voice a form so you can see how the dialogue operates.
You'll notice that one of the things I was treating in this particular discussion was the implications of doing something. Not just for how things might unfold further down plotwise, but what kind of story is being told. To my mind, that's one of the big reasons to do this — to make sure the kind of story you're telling matches the decisions to make in it.
Getting these kinds of internal debates out in the open where you can see them is going to feel at first like you're spinning your gears. You don't want to spend forever nursing every plot point, but if you cast it as an exercise, and — this is the key thing — take away specific action points for each decision, it'll pay off. It's easy to get bogged down in terrible levels of minutiae with an exercise like this, but after sussing it out a few times you get a sense for how far down you need to go with a particular work.
Now you see what kept me busy all week.
Most of why I document stuff like this in detail is twofold. One, other people might find it useful. Two, it's something of a letter to my own life cycle — a way to document how my thinking about this stuff has become less purposelessly "intuitive". I used to heap scorn, not even consciously, upon the kind of mechanical, lifeless, over-engineered and over-thought approaches that I thought were killing good writing.
I later found out this point of view was the product of an attitude that, again, I wasn't even conscious of. Up until relatively recently, I didn't attempt to write any story whose entire plan couldn't be kept conveniently in mind as a single snapshot. In fact, I felt it was my own failing if I couldn't do this — that any Writer needed to be able to have a holographic understanding of his work to do justice to it. It wasn't until I started attempting to do things that were much larger in scope, and more difficult to keep track of, that I realized I had to plan things a little more aggressively than I had before. That didn't stop me from feeling guilty about it, but then I saw Dostoevsky's notebooks and realized I was full of crap.
Plans aren't static things. They have as much life as the story they're designed to bring into being. The process I'm trying to entertain is intended to respect that life.