Many Theories, One Concept

How do you organize your life? How do you organize your day? I submit to you that however you do that, that is how you will initially approach organizing your novel. Do you outline your day? Your month? Your year? Your life? Your career?

Once you recognize this, though, you can always change.

I grew fonder of outlining the more I wrote, but then backed off that as I learned to trust my subconscious more and more as I gained more experience as a writer. A novel is very complex when viewed in its entirety, most particularly mainstream fiction. Working without an outline is sort of “winging” it. Remember that an outline is a living document that you can constantly revise and add to as need.

I believe every hour spent outlining prior to starting a novel, saves you many hours in the actual writing process. It also helps you to write a better novel as you will ‘tighten’ down the story in your outline before you write, rather than having to do it in rewrite.

To be honest, I only outlined my first complete novel when I had a contract that called for a complete outline to be submitted to the publisher prior to final approval for the project (and more importantly a portion of the advance was to be paid on acceptance of the outline.). You are going to have to “outline” sooner or later when writing. You can do it as you go along or you can do it before you write. Doing it as you go along often causes you to have to waste a lot of time writing material that either has to be thrown out or be extensively rewritten. It is prudent to do a lot of the thinking work ahead of time.

The major problem in working without a good outline is that you tend to get “stuck” about halfway through. When I first began writing this wasn’t a major problem. My stories were basic and relatively straightforward action/adventure and, while I didn’t have a detailed outline, I did have a good idea of where I wanted the story to go (as they were based on personal experiences) so I managed to blunder my way through. As I tried writing more complex stories, I found myself getting stuck more and more often and having to take days away from the keyboard to work out where the story was going and keep the subplots in line.

When you start your manuscript with your one sentence original idea, you have a relatively blank slate to work with. The further along you get, the less options you have. If you work without an outline, you may find yourself with no options at some point. Or at least no good options. This is, to slightly understate the predicament, not good.

If you combine many of the other chapters in this book such as narrative structure, the beginning, characters, etc. you get a good overview of the pieces you need to put together a novel. Outlining is putting those pieces into a framework. The basis of your framework is that one-sentence original idea that I beat into you early in this book. Then you decide your storyline and the characters who are going to live the story.

I cannot overemphasize (OK, I probably could) how important it is to have a feel for your characters before you begin writing. I consider getting that feel part of outlining—bringing your characters to life.

Outlining is also very critical in keeping your subplots tight to the main plot. You will restrict yourself from going off in tangents if you know at which point in your main story a subplot develops and where and how it will eventually come back and tie into the main story line.

Another advantage of outlining is that since the outline is tight to start with, as you write and add flesh to your outline, you can make the story even tighter.

One of my biggest obstacles to outlining was that I just wanted to get started writing and didn’t want to take a couple of weeks doing the outline. Now I realize how much time in the long run it saves me to stay away from the manuscript and do the outline first.

The degree of detail in your outline is personal. In fact, you may chose not to have one at all. But don’t treat it like the gospel once you do devise one. As you go along the characters will develop a life of their own as will the story. As you fill in details, occasionally these details will cause you to change parts of your story as opposed to what was outlined. None of my recent, more complex novels, turned out the way I thought they would way back in the beginning when all I had was the original idea and some research.

Remember that outlining is an ongoing process just like the writing. If you view a novel in the beginning as a large blank slate, then the original idea is a sentence you write at the top of the page. From there you start your outline, tracing characters and events along the timeline of your story. When you feel you have an adequate outline, you start writing. As the story progresses, you must go back every once in a while and redo the outline, tightening your story down.

I view this for me as writing in surges. I project out my story as much as I know at the time. Then I proceed to write. When I sense that I am losing track, I go back over my outline and fill in what I’ve already written, adding in all the details. With these new details, I redo the outline, tightening down what has yet to be written and making sure it is in congruence with what has already been written. Sometimes, I also have to go back and add a layer to the story, or take a layer away.

There are some critical questions that you must answer before you begin your manuscript. Answer these questions in writing, not in your head. To me, the bottom line on outlining is writing down everything I can possibly think of with regard to the story. You will find that the process of actually writing down those great thoughts you have might knock you up against the harsh rocks of reality. Sometimes it looks very different in black and white on paper, than in color in your brain.

Here are the questions:

What is my one sentence original idea?

Who are my main characters? What are their primary motivations? Do their primary motivations naturally lead them to assume the role they must, in this novel? How did they get these primary motivations? How do I show the reader the characters primary motivations?

Where and when is my setting?

What point of view will tell this story best?

What tone will I have?

What should be my initiating event?

How will conflict escalate?

What will be the moment of crisis for my protagonist?

What is the climax of my story?

How do I maintain suspense/reader interest throughout the novel?

Caveat. Be careful that your writing doesn’t appear to be just a blown up outline. When that happens, the writing appears to be stilted and a little forced. Also, just expanding an outline leaves little room for creativity and allowing the characters to react and “live”. You may have outlined certain events occurring, but when you actually sit down and write your characters experiencing those events, usually you will find that it turns out not exactly as outlined. Sort of like real life. Go with it. Allow your characters to be living beings involved in the story.

Find the degree of outlining that you are comfortable with, but at least consider doing some sort of outline. There are some very successful authors who can break a novel down by sections and structure and crank out certain genre novels according to a “script” they have for that type of book. And, although many don’t like hearing it, there is a formula to some type of novels. Although we all want to be original (or maybe we don’t?), realize that if you are writing a romance and you produce something totally unlike any other romance on the bookshelves you’ve done two things: you haven’t written a romance in the first place, and secondly, when you try to market it, it won’t be viewed as a romance. You may be the trailblazer like those I mentioned earlier and start a new field, but the odds aren’t good. If you feel strongly about your writing, don’t let that dissuade you, just be aware of the reality of the situation.

I definitely feel that updating your outline is important every day when you sit down and try to write chapters. Pick a start point and an end point for every chapter. Then ask yourself how do I get from one to the other? What is the purpose of this chapter? Also look at the chapter in terms of the overall story. Where does it fit? Is this the right time for this to happen? If you don’t have a definite end point, your chapter will meander.

Do you outline?  How do you do it?