March 25, 2013

Outlining a Book

By the time I started writing my very first novel-length book, I had read so many different how-to articles, columns, essays and blog posts on writing techniques that I should have been an old pro long before I typed the first word.

The reality is, however, that most of you people -- and you know if I mean you -- don't know what the hell you're talking about. Not that you aren't smart people, or that you haven't figured out how to get the most out of your own writing time, just that you don't know me. You do not have the necessary understanding of my personality, work ethic, bad habits, good habits, and mental deficiencies in order to authoritatively declare what will or will not work for me when it comes to writing a book. Trouble was, having never written anything longer than fifteen pages, neither did I. After piddling around with the idea of writing a murder mystery for a brief period of time, say twenty or so years, I decided to put aside all the conflicting advice and get to it. Write the damn book, already, and get it over with.

So, the experiment began with me believing I could jump in and write the bits I felt strongly about and fill in the open spaces between. It took less than three days to see the error of my ways. In order to maintain consistency of tone and character traits, it would be necessary to start at the beginning and tell the story straight through to the end. But how is a person with a memory like a sieve supposed to do that? With an outline, of course. Easy solution. Outline the story, noting important actions and scenes, to provide a roadmap. Okay. Great idea. Now, how do I go about creating an outline?

The first outline I threw together was a pages-long, micro-detailed rant that essentially was me telling my future self: "Hey, stupid! Write what I'm telling you to write and don't stray an inch from the path laid out for you."

Apparently, not only do I behave like a pissy little girl when other people tell me what to do, it turns out I behave like a pissy little girl even when it's me telling myself what to do. Psychiatrists around the world, had they been able to observe those early days of the writing process, would have had a field day watching me argue with myself about the ridiculous character notes and story elements I was telling myself to force into my own book. The uber-specific outline lasted only a couple weeks before being replaced with something much looser.

Too loose, it turned out. Instead of the seventeen obsessive bullet points per chapter of the first outline, the second outline allowed too much freedom and not enough guidance. It was like suddenly going from living with the most controlling, uptight parents in the world, to living with communal, pot-smoking, free-loving spirits to whom things like goals and objectives were just tools "the man" used to keep you down. Clearly, the proper outline for the kind of writer I was striving to be lay somewhere between the two extremes.

And that's exactly where I found it. A couple bullet points to serve as reminders of the most important things to have happen in any given chapter, a note about a character or important bit of dialogue to introduce here or there, and then get going. Structured, but not rigid. Informative, but not detailed. A roadmap, but one that offers options along the journey.

Now, after having successfully completed two books using this method, I begin two more secure in the knowledge I am gradually moving closer and closer to the realization that I don't really know what I'm doing, but I can fake it if I'm smart enough.

© 2013 Mark Feggeler

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