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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Ahh, outlining. One man’s bane, another man’s panacea. I have to thank Spencer for introducing me to outlining. I’d never done it before and he was kind enough to send me CDs and beautifully written notes on the process. You gotta love methodical people!

Anyway, it changed my whole perspective on writing. Once I started outlining, everything flowed so much easier and faster. Fast is good. Maria like fast.

Spencer warned me from the get-go that outlining would take a big chunk of my writing time. Boy, was he right. It is the most time consuming and mind wracking part of the writing process for me.

But once you have it behind you, you move like greased lightning through the story.

My outline starts out with the basic conflict of the story. What’s the problem? Who’s involved? What do the characters have to lose? Answer those questions and you end up forming a very rudimentary hook.

I can’t help creating hooks. It’s the only thing I can say comes easily to me. So thank goodness for small favors.

Once I have the kernel of my idea in concrete form I work on the main characters. I list who they are, what they want and what keeps them from achieving their desires. I don’t submit to the idea of “interviewing” characters and finding out what their favorite ice cream is.

I know that helps some people but I think it clutters your thinking too early in the game. In order to keep the story fresh I don’t want to spend too much time decorating characters with attributes that may change as you learn more about them through the actual process of writing.

When I work on my character profiles I make sure I note how their wants are in direct conflict with their counter characters, the antagonists. There has to be a balance of point and counterpoint.

Next, comes the semi-solid plot points. Call it an in-vitro synopsis. This is where I let my mind wander a bit and make blanket statements that flesh out the problem and the solution to the story. This is usually not more than a couple of paragraphs.

And on the next day, Maria rested. Yup. I usually let the idea sit there for a few days. I find I’m thinking about it in the background anyway, but I’m not fiddling with it. I’m just contemplating my options and seeing what I have to work with.

When I feel I have enough to give it substance I start the chapter summaries.

My chapter summaries are no more than two sentences. I also list the pov of the character within that chapter because by now I know who has the most at stake at any given point in the story.

Listing the pov within the chapter has turned out to be a really good tool for me. It helps me plan the story around the people who have the most to lose. It also helps me create counterpoint. For example: My mc is worried about her secret being exposed. In the next chapter, I have the antagonist closing in on that secret. Point, counterpoint. Conflict escalation, big bad stuff ahead.

My first pass at the outline will look kind of skinny. That’s because it’s usually only one thread, the main thread. As I flesh it out, I pull out my minor characters and give them a subplot, nothing big, just something to give them purpose. If I do my job really well all the subplots and the main plot will converge at the end.

I don’t create subplots willy-nilly. They have to have a basis with the main plot.

My outline is usually about two pages long. The nice thing about it is that you can tell at a glance where you need to tighten up the story and build characterization. The other benefit is that I know something pivotal happens in each chapter. Otherwise it wouldn’t be there.

One last thing to bear in mind is that an outline is a living document. As you write your story you may encounter an "aha moment" that changes the course of human history...or at least the course of your novel. Go with the flow. If it feels right, go back to your outline and update it.

It's easier to make your detours on an outline than on a 100K manuscript.

That’s it. Outlines are the hardest to write, but they’re beneficial in so many ways throughout story building. I wasn’t a believer before, but I am now.