Monday, September 27, 2010

James Ellroy

I was at a little get-together where JE talked about his latest book(s) and how he works. He's an interesting guy -- mega-Oedipal, sloppy, self-obsessed, potty-mouthed, and bellicose. His inamorata (See "My Pursuit of Women") values him for these very qualities. Which makes her even more interesting.

The point of this blog, though, is not his character, but his advice-about-structure. For a 600 page novel, his outline is 100-150 pages. He talked about filling the frame. He loves detail of every kind. It's well-organized bricolage, if you ask me. Way beyond many of us at Hamline who suggest back-story for characters -- favorite clothes, CDs, etc.

JE's outline might look like this for an opening scene-- "X watches TV where Kennedy's funeral is being telecast. X is just out of bed. He's in pajamas and one slipper. He's smoking filtered Camels and coughing. This scene begins the theme of death and public recognition. Or lack thereof. The hotel room is mid-range. Anonymous. The door to the mini-bar is open. Fast food wrappers from Wendy's on the desk." And so on.

I'm the sort who doesn't want to know where he is going in a book (even if that's a trick I play on myself). JE claims that all that detail frees him up to get to the heart of the scene when he writes it. For me, it would get in my way. I like to discover as I move the story on (horizontal); JE likes to discover vertically.

There's something in this extreme-sounding advice that it like, however. If someone wants to try it, I'd go as far as Ellroy himself. Very, very detailed. I'd add specifics from every sense -- touch, smell, taste, hearing, sight. The latter being least important. Everybody does sight. Few do taste.

If someone writes short books like mine, assume a draft of 150 pages. That'd make the outline 30 or so. Maybe a little less. I can see the outline turning into the/a book. And that wouldn't be a bad thing either.


  1. Surely, in putting together a 150-page outline, a writer could still surprise himself with twists and turns and whatnot, right? I'm thinking this could be an interesting exercise, especially if a writer tends to get lost in infinite possibilities. Like me.

    Thanks for posting this. I love hearing about process, especially since I still haven't found mine.

  2. I found Ellroy's advice interesting, because I wrote one story where I made myself lay out a very detailed setting before I wrote each scene. I found the setting layout to be tough, but then when I wrote the actual scene, the setting I'd just written out informed the characters, the way they gestured and moved, and it affected the mood of each scene beautifully. It was nuts! But it was great.