Category Archives: Outlining

If November is for Novel Writing, then October is for Outlining

After typing my two favorite words into my manuscript FREE AMERICA and setting aside its sequel, I’m getting pumped up to crank out the first draft of a new, completely unrelated manuscript for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been playing around with story ideas and coming up with characters for a few months, and it is time to start getting them into some sort of intelligible conglomeration that will help me bang out the prose.

I mean no offense to the “pantsers” of the world. I am a write-by-the-seat-of-the-pants guy much of the time, especially when I am searching for story. I started out FREE AMERICA knowing nothing about my story except where it began and what the world was like. The rest of the time was spent exploring the world, finding the characters’ voices and discovering where the story went. I enjoyed all of that time (well, most of that time), but it certainly was a giant hunk of time spanning years of my life.

It took me so long to write FREE AMERICA because it was my first novel, and, of course, my first draft ended up with most if not all of the problems that first novels tend to develop. Being too much of a perfectionist for my own good, I decided to find and fix the problems rather than say “oh well” and discard it as my crappy first novel attempt. Do I think I identified and eradicated every single one of them? I’m not delusional. I know I will benefit from working with a professional editor. Who wouldn’t?

Completing the first draft, getting feedback from readers, then working through all of the cutting and revising and rewriting afterward was the deepest learning experience I have ever gone through. This wasn’t just a practical exercise rather than a theoretical one, it was a spiritual journey that forced me to face my fears and develop personal character. Now that I’ve got about as much character as I or anybody else can stomach, I would like to experiment with seeing how expeditious I can be with drafting a complete manuscript from beginning to end.

I’m thinking of this as one big exercise, one that might transform my process. I don’t picture myself creating an ultra-detailed outline. I picture myself doing the sort of planning I do before I travel to a new place for the first time. I want to figure out in general where I will be going and how I will be getting there as well as a little bit about some of the things I might experience while I am there. I see myself finding the major landmarks of the story, exploring the neighborhood a little, and gaining a better understanding of what makes my characters tick and how they would  probably react to the environment and situations I contemplate putting them in. Afterward, I will release the characters into the wild and see what happens, hoping to be a little surprised at what ends up happening.

I will probably wind up doing what I eventually did with FREE AMERICA: create/modify an outline to track what I have written to ensure it all works together. My writing and outlining worked in tandem, each informing the other, until I ended up with my completed manuscript. Much of my “outlining” in the final stages consisted of quick scribbles into the hardcover pocket notebook I carry at all times in order to capture inspiration and honey-do lists.

These are the things I have found most useful in my preparation for this process:

Many moons ago, I signed up for the newsletter at StoryFix.com,  read the books Story Physics and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and listened to at least one Writer’s Digest Tutorial by Larry Brooks. All that material has firmed up my understanding of how and why to structure a story. I think I may bit a bit more of a free-spirited writer than Larry Brooks, but I respect his ideas and methods.

I also liked this Writer’s Digest Tutorial from  K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel: Create a Roadmap to Storytelling Success. What I liked most about this tutorial is the pure practicality of it. This is a tutorial that is geared toward getting things done. It is all about seeing the big picture so you can go forth and paint it with your words.

The thing that got my creative juices flowing the most was a book I read by James Scott Bell: Write Your Novel From the Middle. The general idea of this book is that (A) every story has a moment, pretty darn close to the exact middle of the page count, where the main character realizes all is lost, sees who he is, understands what he has become, and/or grasps what he wants to be; and (B) if you can do a good job of nailing down this moment, then you can leverage both the first and last halves of the manuscript from it.

So, I hereby declare my intention to figure out during the month of October what my story is and where it is going so that I can get the words down onto the page during NaNoWriMo in November.

I wish the best of luck to everyone else out there who might also be so inclined.

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The Arc, the Plot, and Everything

Between fits of hair-pulling, I have been reading quite a bit about the things one must do to get one’s novel manuscript ultimately into the hands of a willing publisher. I’ve been whittling down a snappy query letter. I’ve been distilling a synopsis. Now I’m making an outline.

“Why didn’t you make an outline to begin with?” My psychic powers can detect the question already.  I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’m not a fastidious outliner either.

Sure, before I got fully underway, I set down what the main turning points of the plot would be. You know, the tried and true formula for manuscript success: The hero is born, the hero’s life goes to shit, the hero tries to clean up the mess or kill the shit-maker, shit gets worse, the hero gets in super-deep shit, the hero throws the shit-maker into the shit, and everybody lives happily ever after (or not).

Here’s the thing: what I thought the story was before I began is not exactly what the story turned out to be. My characters insisted on a different story. I listened.

Now I need to go back and outline the story the characters demanded. I’ve broken down my chapters into sub-parts, and I am writing a line for everything important that happens in each of them. This means that I am combing through the manuscript once again.

This is a good thing, I suppose. I have found one or two typos and a few instances of language that could be clarified or simplified. One more notch clicks on the gears tightening up the manuscript.

I wonder how many times I will have read through this manuscript before this project is finished. I have read it so many times that it tends to wash over me. I suppose that is why I am finding things I overlooked before now that I am going through the manuscript with the job of making an outline. It is forcing me to concentrate on something practical, shifting my perception just enough to get another angle on things.

After I am finished with the outline, I wonder if I will want to do some story tweaking…

I suppose I will need to wait to see how this novel ends up writing itself.