Saturday, October 6, 2007

To Outline or Not To Outline?

In many ways, writing is like a game. As with a game, you must follow certain rules. As with a game, you invest some time, pursue some courses of action, and emerge the winner ... or the loser. And, as with a game, you must always be on your toes, ready for unexpected.

Of course, for a story, the unexpected is good. It keeps the reader guessing, wondering, wanting to read on to learn more. But for a writer, the unexpected can be deadly.

When I wrote my first novel at the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a writer and knew I had to write. I learned my craft as well as any kid my age could. I practiced diligently. I learned the rules, played by them, and still couldn't get published. Published, hell, I couldn't even get a decent reading. By the time I was 18, I'd collected enough pre-printed rejection slips to paper the walls of my basement "office" (which, by the way, I did).

I also did something else--something, as it turns out--that played a pivotal role in my not getting published. I avoided outlining like the Plague I knew it to be. Why spend time dinking around, I argued with myself, when I could be cranking out pages, paragraphs, entire novels? I had written half a dozen of them by the time I was out of school. You can only guess at their quality.

I know there are some pros who don't outline even today, and, in fact, I'm one of them ... occasionally. But that's the exception rather than the rule. When I do take the time to outline, the book flows easier, the errors in time and space are fewer, and the results are almost always better. Here's why.

An outline is a perfectly organized way for a perfectly disorganized human brain to keep things straight as words flow from stem cells onto paper. And a novel is nothing--including, by the way, readable--if it's not organized.

Outlining allows you to write the book in miniature so that, when you return to begin fleshing the story out, the tough stuff has already been done for you. It's much easier and far more efficient to fill in the blanks and round out the rough spots than it is to craft the story on the fly and do all that filling in and rounding out. Working from an outline, you can decide what descriptive passages go where, what character traits to reveal when, and how to connect all the dots without having to worry in between about what your story line is and whether or not the whole thing makes sense.

So, in effect, an outline should be composed of the following elements:

A story line

Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Here's an example:

Bob stood up and stretched. He was tired of waiting for his contact, but at this point, he had no choice. It was either that or 20 years-to-life doing hard time in prison. When his contact showed, he was surprised to see it was a woman. Denise was 25, 30 at the most--a good ten years younger than he--with tawny good looks and a smile he took to immediately. She had expected someone younger than he and told him so. She said he didn't seem young enough or dumb enough to be involved with something like this at his age, which he took as a left-handed compliment.

They climbed back into her car and drove the three hours to the reservoir. There, they got out, Bob dragging the sack he'd brought with him along to the edge of the spillway. She asked to look inside, and at first he thought better of it. He asked her why, and she said she didn't know, she guessed that she just wanted to see what a couple of hands and feet looked like disconnected from their body. And she smiled.

That's a good start to a story, and at this point in time, I needn't know why Bob is carrying around a sack of human parts with him ... or even what his relationship to his contact is. I'll find that out as I get deeper into creating the outline. The bottom line is that, in five or six minutes, I got the novel off the ground and pointed in a specific direction. Were I to go back and flesh that much of it out--adding description, some flashback or recalls to fill the reader in on Bob's history, some character traits--I would probably end up with between ten and fifteen pages of finished work on my hands.

With that said, an outline might also include some elements beyond a story line, such as these:

A list of characters by name (added as they enter the story line

Descriptions of places you may need to go back to

Character traits, peculiarities, and brief biographical snip-its of characters you may need to go back to

Time frames (the car blew up on Tuesday, March 13, and wasn't fixed until that Friday)

Having those elements in your outline can be valuable, if you're going to use them. I rarely do, relying instead on my word processor's "search" feature to find out when the car blew up or what the spelling of Bob's last name is, etc. So my outlines are pretty much similar to the sample above. The point is, once you have a story line, you can include in your outline as much or as little additional information as you desire.

All of these points make a pretty strong argument for writing an outline before crafting the novel, but there's an even better one: most publishers will insist upon it. These days, when a publisher (or an agent or an editor, etc.) asks to see a book, he usually wants an outline and the first three chapters. He spends a few minutes speed-reading the outline to tell whether or not the book is even remotely related to the types of books that publisher sells. If not, you can expect that recurrent rejection slip, again. (But that's another story). If so, he'll invest more time in a more careful read of the chapters. Then, if he's convinced the writing is up to par, the story is handled well, and the other elements of the novel that he expects to be of high quality are, indeed, so, he'll call or write, requesting the rest of the book.

So, should you outline before writing your next novel or shouldn't you? That's the question???

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