I am an outliner, and right now, I’m damned glad of it.
Prior to beginning a project, I create a fairly extensive outline. Some writers prefer a more organic method; they set up a character in a conflict and write to see where it takes them.
If I were a writer like that, this project would be a nightmare. I wouldn’t know where to start. As it is, though, I knew precisely where to start: with an outline.
Turning a biography into a novel has its challenges. Strictly speaking, you can’t really write a biographical novel by the organic method. There are too many restrictions, too many events and facts that limit such a freewheeling approach (assuming, of course, that you haven’t slapped “Inspired by True Events” on the frontispiece). A biographical subject already has a life story, a back story, and (if you’re lucky) a story arc.
More importantly, no one is going to hire a novelist to write a book if they don’t know what will be in it. Okay, some might, but I sure as hell wouldn’t.
An outline is, therefore, required.
But creating a story out of a life is more difficult than it sounds. There’s a big difference between an anecdote and a story, and there’s an even greater difference between a collection of stories and a novel. Most people, I’d wager, have a few segments of their life that tell a good story, but they’re only part of a life story. By the same token, most people do not have a life that, as a whole, makes for a good novel.
Think of your best personal story, you know, the one you get asked to tell and retell. Great story, but how does it relate to that segment of your life? How does it relate to your life as a whole? Chances are, it’s a blip, a one-off, and not part of some linear, decades-long development of your character. It’s interesting, but not representative of your entire existence here on earth; it’s just a great story to dust off at a dinner party.
In going through the documentation, interviews, and biographical material on Avard Fairbanks’s life, I put most of it to the side. This will, I expect, be a disappointment to the family, especially those who spent so much time and energy to capture and document these events, but I see it as my duty to outline the best story possible, and that may not be the most complete story.
Once I selected the events that will contribute directly to the narrative, I needed to structure them in a sensible way. Where to start the story? Where to end it? How to present the elements that go between?
Naturally, a strict chronological construction is easiest. Birth to death is the simplest way of telling someone’s history, but our lives are not simple things. We change. We evolve. Events give us a boost or kick us to the ground, usually without any warning, sense, or discernible order. The ramifications of early mistakes may not be felt for years, and good choices may not pay off for a long, long time.
Also, a successful life is often one of early toil and hardship followed by a later period of success and recognition, but who wants to read a book where the conflict ends mid-way and the second half is all cakes and ale? This also argues for a non-linear construction (or at least limiting the scope to the early, conflict-laden part of the subject’s life).
The structure I’ve decided on is a frame with two interleaved timelines. The frame provides the linkage to all other events, and the two timelines follow the two major arcs of Avard’s life: first as a son and artist, and then as a husband and father. I’ve chosen to tell the first story in chronological order, and the second in reverse order, interleaving the episodes and tying them all to the frame.
I kicked the outline for a few days, got some editorial feedback, refined it a bit, and amped up the thematic concepts so we all know what the story is about, as well as how it’s going to be presented. I’ll be submitting it to the family today. Then we’ll see how far apart we are.
Regardless the outcome, it’s been an interesting exercise. My attitude is strongly influenced by the fact that I do not depend on writing to make my living. I have a day job, so before I take up any writing project, I have to want to do it. I like this outline, and believe it will make a good book.
Now, let’s see if it’s the book the family wants to read.