Thursday, September 01, 2016

Outlines and Themes

And so it goes.

Fall is upon us, kids are moving back to my boarding school, and I'm running department meetings and preparing for 46 kids to populate my dorm. Just dropped my oldest daughter at Kenyon College (why does a father's little girl feel to study and play lacrosse 10 hours from home?). In short, life is going 100 miles an hour, and I'm trying to keep pace.

And amid it all, the best part of my day continues to happen either predawn or just before midnight – when I can steal an hour or two to write.

I'm working from an outline this year, a first, for me. Several times in the past, I've written a five- or six-page synopsis. This time, knowing how busy I will be, knowing, too, I want to give my agent something she can sink her teeth into as we discuss the work-in-progress, I spent roughly a month on a 7,000-word, detailed outline – plenty of particulars on the roadmap for me to know where I'm going, but still enough room to explore and to be surprised. I attended the keynote at Sleuthfest a few years back when Jeffrey Deaver said he spends 8 months on an outline and 3 months to write a book. I'm not nearly there, but I'm sure seeing the merits, and I'm not driving to edge of my headlights, which is how I usually work. So far, so good. I'm enjoying it and love having the safety net: It allows me to write for an hour and a half before work, then not waste time when I steal 30 minutes here and there throughout my day.

I'm also enjoying the subject matter. My work life and my writing life are intersecting in this book – it's set at a New England boarding school. I just finished and am now rereading (something I don't often do) Blacklist, by Sara Paretsky.

It's not a new book (2004), but it remains relevant and important. Issues including race and money in the criminal justice system and something touching very close to McCarthyism post 9/11 are explored. These topics are rich, and Paretsky cultivates them very well – as she so often has and continues to do. She is, simply put, a tour de force. Yet it's a thematic work. No question. And in that way, Paretsky has an agenda and is providing questions for me to ponder, all the while spinning a great yarn.

Like all writers, my reading life feeds my writing life in ways I both know and don't know. Paretsky has me considering the adage I have heard so many times: "Theme is a critic's word, not a writer's." I'm sure I'll revisit this statement in an upcoming post, but I'd love to launch the thread here and see what others have to say about it. Should a writer be contemplating theme when at the keyboard?

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