When Outlines Attack

An outline is an essential tool for me when I am writing a novel. I have heard of writers who don't use them, but I can hardly believe it. (And I would think twice before setting out on a road trip with such a person unless I really didn't care where or when the journey ended.) (shotgun!)

Which is not to say I start with an outline. I start, of course, with an idea and after letting that idea stew in some creative juices for awhile (usually a very long while), I write several pages. These are often, but not always, the first pages in the story. At that point, I normally have a pretty good idea of how the story starts and ends, but I may be a little sketchy on what happens in the middle. (darn you, ya pesky middle!) So somewhere early on, I feel the need to create an outline.

For one thing, writing a 300ish page novel means writing LOTS of words and LOTS of details. For me, without an outline, I'll be lost in The Swamp quite rapidly. Who can remember what color hat our heroine was wearing on page 32? Did she drive to the club or get a ride? Call in sick or go to work? Seemingly minor details can derail your story down the line if you don't keep it all organized somehow. And if you change something in chapter 14, beware! This can have significant ripple effects all the way from page one to the end. If you want your story to make sense and not have dumb mistakes in it, an outline is your best friend, I say.

Not that it has to be pretty! When I sat down to write my first novel - which is HEAVENLY MOVES, the one I'm still (yes) editing to this very day, more than 10 years later - I quickly reeled off the first 15 pages and then had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. (it was fun, though!) The first outline I wrote was an assignment for a writing class at UCLA Extension. What a thing of beauty it was! I think it was something like 40 pages and immensely detailed.

And what an anchor it was around my neck! As I continued to write - actually write - the rest of the novel, I felt trapped by that outline, bound to it. Which was stupid since I had created it. The outline said my character should do A when I really wanted her to do B. Or Q or X. I finally threw out that beautiful outline and went back to the drawing board.

The outlines I use these days are short (often 1 or 2 pages), exceedingly ugly and probably total gibberish to anyone other than me. For example, here is what the outline says for Chapter 1 of HEAVENLY MOVES:

chapter 1
more intro:
meet jd
public defender

Got it? :-) (And in case you're wondering why Chapter 1 calls for "more" intro, I should tell you there's a prologue.)

Here is the outline for chapter 2 of ROMEO FAILS, my Midwestern tale which will be published in February 2012:

d has brunch with mm, s & mm's mother at the café (blue bird café? blue duck café? uh...)
vandalism is the big talk at the café
(places to eat in town: bowling alley? pizza hut, sizzle'n'shake, blue duck café, hotel/motel?)

bar scene leads to encounter with mrs. gargoyle

You can see the tentative nature of these notes. Where to eat? What to call the eatery? I don't know! Or rather, I didn't know, but the outline provided me with the bare bones of the structure of the chapter: It's Sunday, 4 people are having brunch, vandalism is the talk of the town and later there's a bar scene. The outline is sort of like the architectural plans for a house, giving me the dimensions, the walls and the floor. Later on will come the interior decorating with all the details.

Just so you know: I settled on the Blue Duck as the name for the café. And the bar scene did NOT end up leading to an encounter with Mrs. Gargoyle, which is not the character's real name, just her unfortunate nickname. :-) So lots of things changed as I did the actual writing, but the outline kept me on track with the basics.

I'd be lost without an outline. All three of my novels incorporate a mystery element and you have just GOT to be organized when you're writing a mystery! You as the author know what's a clue, what's a red herring, what's important and what's not, but to have it all make sense, be entertaining, flow and seem effortless to the reader - that's the trick. A trick I could not pull off without an outline. I highly recommend the use of one - even if it's just scribbled, uncertain notes - to the aspiring novelist. It's just as crucial to keep track of where you've been as to have a plan for where you're going. Embrace the fact that the plan will change and you'll need to make adjustments. Your outline will save you when that time comes.

And now I'm going to do something else that I highly recommend to all writers - go outside! :-)


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