It’s usually not a good idea to generalize about writers; their sheer numbers provide an army of folks who defy the norms. While pundits and professors are busy making lists of techniques, charting dos and don’ts, and codifying creativity, the writers are busy churning out an endless stream of exceptions to the “rules.” When it comes to outlines, the same things apply.
We’re introduced to outlining at a tender age, and we’re shown precisely how to proceed, logically cataloging ideas and expanding on them with ever-narrowing headers, subheaders, sub-subheaders, fonts and font sizes, Roman numerals, English letters, and Arabic numbers. Is it any wonder the only people who like doing outlines are the people who enjoy diagramming sentences? [JL trundles off muttering, “There oughta be a law….”]
Obviously, I’m not enamored of outlines, but I recognize they can be useful at times. When Barbara Galler-Smith and I wrote the Druids trilogy, for instance, we would have been hopelessly lost without the detailed outlines we maintained. And yet, when I wrote my first solo novel, Resurrection Blues, I managed to plow through it with little more than a few hastily scribbled notes.
So, where’s the middle ground? No two writers operate the same way (thank goodness), but we do tend to have many of the same problems. Sometimes an outline can go a long way toward solving them. Now, just because I do outlines in a particular fashion doesn’t mean everyone should do the same, but at least I have a rationale for my behavior.
My normal approach to writing a novel these days begins in pure pantser** mode. I sit down and start typing. This usually lasts for several days during which time I’ll generate a dozen scenes, give or take a couple, and I’ll introduce a handful of plot lines and point of view characters. Things move swimmingly, because my primary job is to bring players on stage and put them in jeopardy. I’m on the front end of the juggle, tossing one ball after another into the air. Somewhere about this time, the balls morph into nasty, sharp-bladed things under the authoritarian rule of gravity. They’re now falling–all at once–and suddenly I notice some knave has handcuffed my hands behind my back and nailed my scuffies to the deck.
This is typically when I realize I could use a wee bit of guidance, so I start an outline. I use a very simple table and record three things per scene: the name of the point of view character, the number of words used, and what vital thing occurred. I can usually cram the latter into a single brief sentence.
The nice thing about this approach is that I can tell at a glance who’s turn it is to appear next in the story. It also helps me to evaluate whether or not what I’ve committed a scene to is worth the page space I’ve given it.
For instance, if I put 500 words into a scene in which Joe wakes up and discovers someone’s stolen his liver and 2500 words into a scene where he suspects his wife is fooling around on him, I may have a case of misplaced priorities. I can also ascertain that I’ve left out the scene where Joe’s wife agrees to let someone extract his liver in exchange for a trip to Bermuda and a pedicure.
This is also a great time to deep-six scenes that don’t carry their weight. Being brutal helps.
Point is, it’s quick, relatively painless, and helps me to stay focused. I’ve even been known to jot down some outline entries before I’ve written the scenes. This typically happens when I experience the “Ah ha!” moment which, for me, is when I realize I *can* actually finish the story I started! And yes, it is cause for celebration. As always, your mileage may vary.
Next up: we’ll take a look at where story ideas come from. (And we might even find some images that aren’t rendered in sepia.)
**A “pantser” is one who writes by the seat of his or her pants. This, as opposed to a “plotter,” who plans ahead, at least a little bit. Plotters often know how a story will end before they begin. That’s a strategy I heartily endorse, and I can show you a huge pile of unfinished stories which testify to the folly of hoping an ending will magically appear somewhere during the writing process. That said, I know many successful pantsers. They tend to be nice people despite their tragically flawed approach to the craft.