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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Outlines, a la Maria

Stephanie brought up outlines in her blog last week, and since I am now in the throes of outlining a new book, it seems appropriate that I should post on my mired attempts at outlining.

My outlines are so rudimentary no self-respecting grade school English teacher would call my summary a proper outline. But it works for me. And I think that's the bottom line. Some people swear to be organic writers. Others crow that their outlines are so detailed you might as well call them mini-novels.

I'm not that detailed. Details come out while I'm writing---and truthfully, more often when I'm rewriting, but that's a post for another day. My outlines barely take more than two sentences. All I want is the general thrust of that chapter. What is going to happen, and why?

Also embedded in this tiny nutshell of a summary is the pov character. I find this helps me enormously when I get down to writing. If I know whose pov I'm in, I can stand back and decide whose pov is coming next. This gives me a kind of ballpark view of where I'm going and tells me who has the most at risk at any point in the story.

You know how most people struggle with writing a blurb AFTER they've written the novel? I don't do that. I write the blurb first. It might not be the final blurb, but it's the logline I'll work from to create an outline. This gives me a soft base to build upon.

So if my blurb reads something like: When a pickpocket steals the watch of a self-absorbed history professor, it lands them both in a world of mystics and mages. In order to escape, they will have to depend on a troubled child who is slowly going insane as her mind fights off the burgeoning magic that is her curse.

Not great, but it's something. It gives me all the elements I need to weave the story. From here, I'll expand on it by listing all the key players. Since the story is still rolling around in my brain pan, everything is subject to change.

During the story's incubation, my antagonist changed a couple of times. Each time, the antagonist grew more menacing and I realized I needed to create a new character, one who could encompass the necessary malevolence in order to give my protagonists a run for their money.

This is the way it developed:
The first antagonist was the protagonist's friend. He later morphed into a minor opponent, more dull-witted than vengeful. Then I shifted to someone who held a great deal of power and wanted more. Believable, but too conventional, I thought. Finally, I ended up with someone who defied the concept of the archetypal antagonist. She'll be gentle, attractive, even kind, with an underlying core of ruthless ambition that drives her every move. This was an antagonist I could sink my teeth into.

Once I molded a worthy antagonist, I discovered one of my protagonists started to look a little soft by comparison, so I'll have to bolster her up during the writing process.

I like dual, male/female protagonists, which is probably why there is usually a romance in my stories. I like the idea of a couple working out their problems and rising to the occasion. And being a feminist, I want to see an even distribution of heroism from each person. No wilting violets in my stories.

Once I have the blurb and the character map I can start outlining. I usually have a good idea for the beginning and I know the resolution. I also jot down the black moment of the story. This gives me three potential chapters right off the bat. From here I start filling in between them. Since I know what the end result is, my job is to lead the story so that I have several try/fail scenarios, a subplot with a romance and a main plot that pits one force against the other.

What develops are 30-40 chapter summaries tersely written in two to three sentences. At this point, all I need to know is what's going to happen in that chapter, and what needs to happen in order to feed the next chapter.

I generally segue my chapters one into the other, so it's very important that each action predicates what will happen next.

And that's it. I don't over think my outlines. I don't write long summaries or character studies. I write just enough to give me a direction. This way, I know that if I stop writing on Wednesday, I can pick up where I left off the following Sunday because I know exactly where I need to be next.


Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thanks for sharing the way you outline. I'm still trying to figure out what works for me. I like the idea of writing a blub before you write the story.

Maria Zannini said...

The person who taught me his outline method was far more rigid and detailed and that didn't work for me. It has to be tailored to the individual. We all work differently.

--I'm just happy when I work at all. lol