Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Do You Outline?

At writer’s conferences and workshops this is a topic that always comes up. Amateurs and pros alike are not of one mind when it comes to this archaic and confusing process. Admitting that you outline is akin to confessing some abnormal aspect of your love life. “Yes I outline, Doesn’t everyone?” or “No, wouldn’t think of it, it’s not natural, I want to be as free as I can with my story.”
Outline of a Past Novel

Phooey. Regardless as to whether John Gresham outlines (he confesses he does and with great detail) and why didn’t Elmore Leonard didn’t (or at least admit to) remain as issues for discussion over tall ice filled glasses and rich Cabernet. Some of us who can’t keep two thoughts together use an outline to bring us back to the story. Others don’t want to know what happens, their writing is like a detective story, “I’ll learn the answer when the character finds out.” It is often like swinging on a trapeze without a net.

Me, I go either way. I am in the midst of a three book World War II project. The first book is in editing, the second is in construction, and the third in development (all kind of architectural isn’t it). But for historical pieces it is critical to make sure your characters are walking the same road as the world around them. You can’t, like John Belushi, believe it was the Germans who bombed Pearl Harbor (See Clip at the end – beware, you sensitive types, of extremely foul language). My outline structure starts out in a CADD format (computer aided design) that I have left over from some professional urban design work I do in the real world. This allows me to set up parallel tracks for my characters, places, and real events. These are on a month to month timeline running the length of the series from, in this case, 1937 to 1952. By the way when I print it out it is 3 feet by 6 feet, I am a visual guy.

Then as the story develops I can post character and story interactions with real events and places. It keeps me honest and surprisingly adds significant color and flavor to the story as it/they unfolds. What happened in Rome on June 5th that was overshadowed the next day by D-Day June 6th, 1944? It’s critical to my story. When were the Nuremberg Trials? When was Israel’s independence declared and by whom? All critical, my story cannot proceed in a fake self-created historical vacuum.

This structure can be daunting but it is critical to the successful flow of the story. But also remember that nothing is set in stone yet, as something changes, you can/will adjust the outline. A new character wanders in and steals the show, write him in. The outline allows you to start with the broad timeframe of the story then insert vignettes and scenes. I’ll often post with a bold horizontal line important internal timelines such as pregnancies (usually nine months like them or not), birthdays, durations of visits, ocean voyages, etc.

But for my thrillers and mysteries I take another tack. Usually these are set within a specific time frame of hours, days, and weeks. I imagine, since Mr. Dan Brown’s books all occur within 24 hours, his outlines are set up on a minute by minute day-timer schedule and woe to any lost second. My current detective thriller takes 27 days in May, events are critical, days are picked and the time between filled. I actually used an Excel spreadsheet for that one (and it is a bit of a historic piece so certain events are real).

I have also enjoyed the unlimited and unfettered freedom of no outline. And while the stories came out well, there were times when even I was confused and had to resort to rechecking my story’s facts. One can’t have the main character leave before he arrives now can we?

So it’s up to you dear reader, outline or not. Rough outline or detailed, your choice. Stick to it or take the road less traveled, all on you. But a word of caution, unless you intend on publishing your outline in all its glory it’s always a good idea not to show it to anyone lest they offer unnecessary criticism and confusion. By the way when did World War II start? Its 74th anniversary was just last Sunday.

More Later . . . . . . . . .

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