Thursday, April 09, 2009

Outlines and other writerly stuff

Snow! OMG, you guys are having snow! Would you believe that I actually miss winter? At times, that is. I wouldn’t miss scraping my car windshield in April, though. So warm thoughts are coming your way from here in the islands. Where it’s kind of cloudy and cool, just in case you were curious.

On another topic, I know there are various opinions just among the five of us on the benefits of writers’ groups, or critique groups, whatever you want to call them. I work with one, and it helps me most of the time. We met yesterday, which brings me to a question for other writers who may have dropped by for a visit.

Do you use an outline before you begin a novel? Some of us on this blog share the same editor (not all of us, though), and she requires an outline of her established authors before we submit the entire manuscript. Then she wants the first hundred pages. I find the directive useful because my plots have a tendency to get complicated. The outline, from which our editor seems to expect us to deviate, serves as a road map. If I wander, I can find my way back.

I’ve talked to writers who don’t outline at all and others who make 200 page outlines. Mine run 15-20 pages. I do NOT use the format we all learned in elementary school (if you’re as old as I am, that is). I’m referring to the Roman Numeral, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, stuff. That’s just too anal-retentive for me. If I did that, I’d have to obsess more about the shape of the outline than the shape of the book. But I do try to think in terms of a “Three Part Structure,” plot points, the villain’s and protagonist’s motives and commitments. The outline helps me do this. How about the rest of you?

A parting thought—our guest blogger this Sunday is Don Bruns, author of two series and two anthologies. His latest in his Caribbean series, Bahama Burnout, has just arrived in bookstores. Read more about Don’s experiences on Easter Sunday.


Rick Blechta said...

I don't know, but outlines, plot summaries and the like feel WAY too much like homework to me. I can see why just writing out the bare bones of the plot can be helpful, as you state, Debbie, but being required to submit an outline and 100 pages? Do you also get a grade?

Bottom line: everyone works differently. Has your editor ever stated why this, to steal your term, anal-retentive approach is required?

Vicki Delany said...

It's actually a good idea, Rick, to ensure that the authors don't submit a finished MS that is totally unsuitable for what the publisher wants. I'd rather be redirected at the outline, or at 100 pages than told at the end of a year's work that the MS won't be accepted.

Don Bruns said...

I have an outline in my head. And once or twice when I hit a wall, I outline the next several chapters, but I find the surprises are more real when I don't know for sure what happens next. Then again, I know authors who spend more time outlining than actually writing their book, and the results are spectacular. I've never heard a story about outlining and writing that's the same. Everyone has their own style. Thank goodness for that.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to be directed to some writers who outline, in case you feel like naming names.

Theresa de Valence

Authors deserve Better Software To Write

Sandra Parshall said...

Since Debby and I have the same editor, I can attest to the efficiency and effectiveness of the outline-plus-100 pages system. Like Vicki, I want to know where I've gone wrong before I write the whole thing. Mistakes made in those first pages will affect everything that comes after, and I'd rather rewrite 100 pages than 350. I have confidence that I can fix anything, but first I have to see what needs fixing, and often another person's eyes will spot it while mine glide over the bump.

My outlines are sketchy, listing the important event/discovery in every chapter. If I come to a chapter and have nothing but inconsequential stuff to note, I know something is wrong. Something should happen in every chapter.

Carole Shmurak said...

I'm with Sandra here. I write an outline that consists of a few sentences for each chapter. It helps me keep track of what happens when, and if there's not much there, I know the chapter is superfluous.

I tried once to write without an outline and it drove me crazy. Halfway through writing the book, I stopped and wrote the outline.

Peg Herring said...

I agree with Rick. I've tried the sticky note outline thing, and I spend more time manipulating and writing the notes than feels necessary. I tried outlining on legal pads, and I fill up page after page, and then when I go to write it, the story goes off in a different direction and most of it doesn't work.
What I do now is make notes at the bottom of the WIP about things I think might work or things I don't want to forget to put in. As I include those items or decide they won't work, I just delete them. So it's sort of of a running-just-ahead-of-myself outline.

JackBludis said...

Rather than go into detail as I have on this subject int the past, I'll say that I usually start a mystery without quite knowing where it is going. At about page fifty, when I am reasonably sure that I have a theme, a direction, and characters that I think I know, I will usually go back and do my outline. Where I have a problem is that I am often dissatisfied with the ending I plan. It's the denouement that drives me crazy--it used to be the opening.

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