Archive for April, 2012

Do you use an outline when you write your books?

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Kind of. I love outlines. I had a Jesuit education, and that meant lots of outlines. We outlined our essays, our chapters, our presentations, our flash cards… You get it. A good outline is a time saver and point maker, compass and map. It’s like closet organizer for your mind. Yep. I love my outlines, but I love breaking away from my outlines even more.

When I start thinking about a story, I’ll pick out an old notebook. I like our forests, so my notebooks come from a crumpled stash I’ve collected over time, my children’s rejects, leftovers from their school years. I’ll tear out the used pages, but I love the kids’ doodles, so I leave those where I find them. I’ll jolt down the key ideas, knowing that my outline will change a lot as I write, leaving lots of room and flexibility to chase after ideas, characters or scenes. My outlines might look something like this: An overdeveloped beginning that might include a few sample paragraphs, lots of notes in between, a few big blank spaces, and an ending.

The overdeveloped beginning is easy to explain. As I start to write, the focus is on those opening scenes. They are usually pretty fleshed out in my mind. I’ve learned through experience to identify the pivotal moment when the story begins, and to rev up the pace right from the start.

The middle of my outline is messy and makes no sense to anyone other than me. It’s a tangle of bulleted sentences, paragraphs, dialogue bits and lots of margin notes. Some of the bulleted sentences will blossom into chapters, but not always. Occasionally, an idea will grow beyond the scope of a chapter, challenging my early word count. Yikes. The tug of war begins.

The outline’s ending is my destination, the bull’s eye of my story’s arc. I usually have a pretty clear idea how my books will end. The outline might show the simple idea or the actual line I’ll use to close the story. Sometimes, I write the entire closing paragraph upfront.

The blank spaces in the outline belong to the scenes that are not yet clear in my mind. I never worry about those. I know that in time they will be filled with lots of ideas, because a writer’s mind has a peculiar cadence and sometimes the story comes only as it does.