Friday, April 9, 2010

Learning to love the outline

I wish I longed for adventure. I look at my closest friends—many of whom have lived in far flung places—and think “I should do that; I could do that.” I never do. I’m a picky eater, I hate public washrooms, I’m scared of flying, and I can’t even master French (even though I grew up surrounded by it). In short, I am not wired to stuff a handful of clothes into a backpack and venture to places which may not have toilet seat covers and where my ability to purchase a constant supply of hand sanitizer may be compromised.

That’s just not the way I roll.

So it’s probably odd that I clung to the notion that I was a pantser* for so long.

(*In this case, pantser refers to a writer who wings it as they go along, not to any of the slightly scary definitions on Urban Dictionary.)

In the past, I always had an idea of where I thought a story should go, but the plot points were often vague signposts on the road-map from beginning to end (actually, less a road-map and more like directions hastily scribbled on a paper napkin). It wasn’t until an agent said, “I’d like to see what would happen if you outlined,” that I actually tried my hand at it.

And you know what? I’m sort of digging it.

Now I haven’t gone full tilt (I have one awesome friend who has an entire binder of notes and timelines—yes, you know who you are), but I do have seven or eight pages written up that detail the politics and culture of the place and time I’m writing about. And I have a massive table (in a Word Doc) which details each chapter (see below). I fill out the table a few chapters ahead (and I already have the major events down) and I keep notes for future chapters at the bottom. My new rule: I am not allowed to start a chapter until I have some idea of its purpose.

For each chapter, I fill out the following:

Chapter Number:Pretty self explanatory ;)
POV: I have two POV characters so noting the switches here really helps.
Chapter Start: A few words describing the opening (these are pretty vague and subject to change)
What is POV character trying to do? If your chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, this may have more than one answer. Sometimes you won’t be able to answer this question and that’s okay—but always ask yourself why you can’t answer it. Is there a good reason or are you writing a passive character who could benefit from more motivation?
What goes wrong? If nothing went wrong, there’d be no story.
What do they do about it? That whole “active character” thing.
Why does this matter? If it doesn’t matter, do you really need this chapter?
Chapter End: Same as chapter starts.

The questions between “Chapter Starts” and “Chapter Ends” are really the heart of it. They actually come from a FANTASTIC post by Janice Hardy (author of “The Shifter”, one of the most exciting fantasy debuts in years) on scenes and revising (click here to read Janice Hardy’s post).

Is it working? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. I’m about 100 pages in and it’s definitely making the writing go faster and I think editing will be less painful than it’s been in the past. My only worry is that some things might sound stilted or forced. That’s why I’ve given myself full permission to deviate from the outline I’ve created; some things just look better in an outline than they do in the actual chapter.

A famous author once said that plotting was for dullards. And that’s okay. I’ve had years to get used to the fact that I’m a little bit dull and to stockpile antibacterial soap.

Photo-illustration by violscraper.

Original post published on Old People Writing for Teens by GotYA contributor Kathleen. To view the original post and reader comments, please click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have one awesome friend who has an entire binder of notes and timelines—yes, you know who you are...HAHAHAHAHA! Guilty as charged!