Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Distillation of Story--an Outline for Success

(Cross-posted from Sean M. Murphy's blog)

I am nearly completed with the outline for the murder mystery novel, which has been temporarily named Murder Mystery Novel until that part of my brain comes back from its extended hiatus and provides me with something to name it that will elicit even vague interest in a reader/editor/publisher.

And then, yesterday, I read through Kelly McCullough's three book outline for a series of books that he's about to pitch to a publisher, one of which is written, and two of which are anxiously awaited by your truly and a few other folks (read: everyone) in Wyrdsmiths. Reading his outline for those novels and looking at my own for this project got me thinking about outlining in general, and its various values/uses.

I've used outlining in the past to develop a project and get a handle on its scope ahead of time, and found it to be a wonderful tool for focusing the project. When I outline, I describe the plot arc and various subplots or key elements on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and then as I am writing the novel, I can go back and revise the outline--tweak it a bit, add a section, even restructure or remove a section altogether. But where it's been most useful for me is when I get into the meat of a story, and it becomes a big enough thing where I have to work hard to hold the whole story in my head, the chapter breakdown of the outline helps me focus on where I'm headed and what I need to work on next. Also, its a great way of re-energizing myself if the story has started to stall, because I can see where I had wanted it to go.

I'm not suggesting that outlining is a foolproof way of preparing for a story, or that it worls for everyone. Lyda, for instance, is a very "organic" storyteller, learning where the story goes as it builds up, following her characters down a dark street because, despite her protestations, that's where they want to go, and damnit, that's where they're going to go.

But in my experience, outlining can be a boon in getting down the ideas when that initial bloom/explosion of creative juice happens, and then as a road map, albeit a flexible one, later on.

How about you? Do you outline, or is it an abhorrence to your process? How do outlines function for you? What other uses are there for an outline--for instance, Kelly's outline as a sales pitch--and how does their different function alter their construction? Do you outline as a means of preparing, or abstract an outline as a sales pitch once you're done?


Erik Buchanan said...

Can't stand doing outlines myself. Generally, when I create one, I find I've lost the story.

Or maybe I've just lost the fun of it, which is finding out what comes next.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I've only written the one book, so I have minimal experience with outlining. I can hold a short story in my head pretty well. For the book, I didn't do much outlining on paper, but I started with a file with chapter headings that told me the major conflict(s) in each chapter.

It was nice. I never hit a blank page where I had to ask myself what I was doing next. I moved a couple of things as I went, of course. And I still had lots of fun figuring out how each conflict played out.

Now, if I'd been writing a mystery, I'd have outlined the hell out of the crime and the clues/misdirection. I suspect my characters might have gotten weirder in compensation for all the stuff I wasn't deciding as I went along.

Sean, congrats. If you'd like another long-time mystery reader to look over the outline before you dive in, let me know.

Anonymous said...

I did one quasi-outline for the rough draft of the first novel I wrote. It's still in need of much work, but I don't know how I would have gotten through that much story-telling without having some idea of where I'm going next.

The outline was really just plot points on index cards that I could move around to make the best order. What happened in between the cards was very seat-of-the-pants.

Anonymous said...

Erik, that's exactly one of the points that I bring this up for, because it's a fundamental, unquanifiable process concern. If you haven't got energy for the story, you can't write it. Fontunately--for me, anyway--I don't lose energy by outlining; rather, I lose energy by not knowing where I'm going, and feeling like I'm just wandering in the woods.

Steph, I may very well take you up on that--particularly on any logic holes. I'm still working out exactly how 'red-herringy' I want to be in telling this tale. But I do want to outline the hell out of the crime and the clues and the misdirection, because in this situation, not knowing what's going on, at least from where I'm sitting, doesn't help.

Word Nerd: Interesting variation. I have a parallel, if somewhat less flexible, technique, in that my outline is generally a Word .doc, so I can cut and paste as necessary. That said, I don't tend to do that, because while I have a bird's eye view of the sotry is when most of my primary plot wrestling goes on. Once I sink down into the guts of the tale, I can't see the plot for the trees, so to speak, and I have to trust that my initial plot development and/or my astute readers will inform me of major missteps.

Anonymous said...

I honestly couldn't outline if my life depended on it. I do, however, create a "timeline" of what is supposed to happen when. Too, I make a long, "working" list of events as I think of them - and once they're added in/written, I mark them off the list.

I hated outlines in school. I like them even less now.