Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Death by (over)outlining

Picture this: You, sitting at your keyboard. It’s day 100 of writing your first book. You’ve drained the coffeepot once again, considered breaking into the brandy, and now you’ve discovered a little bald spot where you’ve torn your hair out. Where’s the book going?

Maybe nowhere, unless you have a plan, a roadmap, an outline.

We’ve talked to writers who actually avoid this detail. They have a vague notion of their yarn and they’re anxious to start writing, not spin their wheels on this organizational modus operandi. But for some writers (and we’re probably not the only ones) drafting an outline is the most efficient way to advance the story without the show-stopper of “what comes next.”

For us, it makes sense. Once we have an overall notion of our book’s beginning, middle and end, we fill in the gaps with chapter road signs that move the story forward. But we didn’t figure it out right away. After multiple attempts at outlining techniques (more on one of those fiascos in a minute), we finally discovered the “less is more” approach gives us wiggle room for changes.

Chapter Six of The Magic Outhouse: Buford decides to turn his time machine into a business.

Okay, not much to go on for an entire chapter. But if you’re already at chapter six, you know your novel has the capacity to take on a life of its own. The evolution of story starts the moment you develop your first characters, and they may have better ideas than you about where the tale should go. By not getting too specific on your roadmap, you’re free to take as many detours as you want.

So Buford decides to start the business. But maybe by chapter five he’s picked up a new partner, or he’s wound up in jail and can’t find the financing.

Each chapter nugget (if it still even fits) of the outline will need a few bullet points. If Buford isn’t in jail, he might look for a business location, interview new employees and implement everything else involved in starting a new venture. Now you’re in the driver’s seat and can start collaborating with your characters without sacrificing additional hair.

One of our earlier fiascos (as promised) involved drafting an outline for a historical fiction novel on ancient Egypt. We spent months researching the topic – years actually, if you count the time we spent trying to learn hieroglyphs. Once we felt pretty good about our expertise, we jumped into the outline. And what a thorough outline it was. Each of the twenty chapters turned into a page or more of precise details. When we finally began the book, we slogged through about three or four scenes before we became utterly bored with the story. We’d left no wiggle room to invent or improvise, no opportunity for our characters to evolve and no chance to discover fresh turning points in the story. The outline had so shackled us to its rigid constraints, we decided to ditch the project altogether.

For us, the bare-bones outline works. We write chapter "loglines" for where the story might go, but we only flesh out the immediate chapter ahead with a paragraph to focus our attention on the next five to ten pages. That way, we avoid planning out in detail where we may – or may not – be headed.

You be the judge of how intricate your roadmap should be, and how you embark on your initial journey. Otherwise, you might as well start shopping for a jaunty hairpiece.

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So much for our strategy. We’d love to hear how other folks approach their projects.