Excerpted from The Southeast Review, Volume 27, Number 2: The Lie that Chokes the Reader: A Conversation with Ethan Canin and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Interviewer: I wanted to ask you about planning your own material. . . (You seem) to suggest that you don’t plan your books. Are you a mapper?
Ethan Canin: I’m an explorer, but then a mapper. I have no idea where a novel is going. I don’t know the plot. I don’t know the characters.
Interviewer: You don’t do any planning ahead of time?
Ethan Canin: Zero. My last novel—America, America—started with a scene . . . This girl jumps off the back of a boat into the lake. That one seemed decent. I started with that. Then, I had to make up a wealthy family, and a working-class kid. So, I kind of came up with a novel, sort of a novel. . . Once it’s (drafted), then I map it out. I make a huge storyboard and I try to fit the scenes together. . . I get multicolored index cards, and each color corresponds to a plot. Since you can’t hold an entire novel in your head, it’s the only way I can begin to look at it. I can look at it and say, “There’s not enough of the orange plot. About halfway through, the reader may be forgetting about the orange plot.”
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An outline does not have to come at the beginning of the writing process. It can be used in mid-process as a tool for organization (and re-organization). This is the way Ethan Canin uses his storyboard, which can be seen as a type of outline. First he writes toward discovery, and then he makes a huge storyboard to organize the material. As he puts it: “I’m an explorer, but then a mapper.”
You might remember from “Hawks and Dachshunds” that developing writers tend to get stuck on the line-level in revision. An outline is a great tool to help you zoom out so you can see the structure of your manuscript. That’s all you’re trying to do today, by the way: see what you have made. Tomorrow you’ll get a chance to make some changes to your outline.
A Couple of Examples
Before we get to the instructions, I want to show you how I use these tools in my own practice. I utilize outlines/storyboards in a couple of different ways. I use Scrivener to map out my novel projects.
When I want to figure out the structure of a novel written by someone else, I break it down on a spreadsheet like a literary accountant.
Now let’s turn to your story.
Step 1: Map it.
(adapted from Cathy Day’s site)
- Read your story using index cards or post-its (real ones or virtual ones) in order to thumbnail each scene in the book. Take note of WHO (pov character and who s/he is interacting with), WHAT (1-2 sentence scene summary), WHERE (setting), WHY & HOW (purpose the scene fulfills in the overall narrative). Make sure you number the cards in the corner, in case they get out of order.
- If using different colored cards/post-its helps you further visualize, great.
- Determine the major plot points. Mark them.
- Where is Act 1, Act II, Act III? (Or, if you’re using some other framework, mark the cards accordingly)
Step 2: See what’s there & what could be there
Look at your cards. Pay attention to your mind. “Hallucinate to the data,” as one of my old teachers put it.
What do you notice?
What’s extraneous? What (or which characters) could be streamlined?
What do you see now that you didn’t see before?
Look for problems, but also look for opportunities. As you look, jot down your observations.
Step 3: Remap it
Legend has it that Eudora Welty used to cut up her stories with a pair of scissors. Sitting at her long kitchen table, she would push around the slips of paper until she settled on the best order. Then she would pin the story back together with dressmaker’s pins. Story as dress—what an image.
Of the four revision moves that Sommers names—adding, cutting, substitution, reordering—the last one might be the most difficult*. Or maybe it’s just the scariest one, because it can feel like shifting around tectonic plates. But like most things, this move becomes easier and less scary once you try it a few times. Today is your chance to practice this move in a low-stakes way.
Add cards. Cut cards. Shift and shuffle the cards around to see how they work in different arrangements. Take your time with this. Try a bunch of different possibilities and arrangements. Play with structure and sequence until you feel the tumblers of the story fall into place. When that happens, you’ll have the map for your next draft, which you’ll write tomorrow.
What did this exercise teach you about:
- Your story?
- Yourself as a writer?
What was the hardest part? What made it hard?
What was the best part? What made it good?
If you try this kind of exercise again, how will you adapt it?
*Cutting is also hard for many emerging writers. But I worked hard on this! What was the point if I’m just going to throw it out? Look at it this way: You had to write that stuff to know your manuscript as well as you do. It’s like a step-ladder: You needed it to get to a higher level, but once you’re up on that level, no one needs to see your step-ladder.