Last Saturday I was driving to the supermarket at eight in the morning when I saw a dead man lying on the pavement. I stopped the car, got out and went over to investigate. He was in his late twenties, smartly dressed with a look of innocence upon his face but there was no doubt in my mind that he was dead for he was lying stretched out by the side of the road, his head resting against the wheel of a parked car, his arms folded across his breast, like the carving of some medieval knight on a cathedral tomb .
Hold on a minute, I said to myself. Do people normally die with their arms folded? Unlikely, I decided. So I bent over, examining him closely for signs of life. Suddenly he gave a loud snore. Not dead after all, then. Presumably he’d gone out for a drink on Friday night, perhaps straight after work without any food to line his stomach, got completely drunk and this was as far as he could make it on his way home. I considered waking him but it occurred to me that he might not thank me. So a little reluctantly, I got back in my car and continued on my way to the supermarket.
I’m not judging the young man. Anyone who knew me in my youth, (even in my extended youth, I have to confess) would testify that I was no stranger to intoxication in all its variety of guises. However, even in my most parlous state, I would not have considered giving up the weary journey home and settling down for a night’s sleep on the pavement.
On reflection it strikes me that this young man is a kind of metaphor for one of the more common traps into which aspiring authors so often fall. All too frequently they rush headlong into a novel, overwhelmed by enthusiasm, unable to bear the delay of creating a detailed outline. What, after all, could be so inimical to inspiration, to spontaneity, to the muse herself than sitting down before you start and planning the whole story?
I’ll tell you what, getting half way through a novel in a huge burst of enthusiasm then running out of steam and giving up. As someone who doubles as a manuscript doctor I am sent a large number of half-finished manuscripts by writers who followed the will-o-the-wisp of inspiration as far as they could get and suddenly found themselves with no idea where the story ought to go next. My advice is simple. Think the story out to the end before you start writing. Then write out a detailed outline. Only when you’ve done that are you ready to start on the first draft.
Not everybody works this way of course. There are as many ways to write novels as there are novelists. Nevertheless, the advantage of an outline is that you get to road test your plot before you start. As a result, you are much less likely to despair of ever getting to the end and settle instead for lying down on the pavement with your arms crossed and sinking into oblivion.