Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Benefits of Outlining

I've read a few author interviews lately that have asked the author whether or not he or she is a planner or a pantser. What's a pantser? Someone who flies by the seat of their pants.

For me, I work in longer mediums, novellas, novels, lengthy personal essays. I struggle with short stories and poems. That being said, my ideas come to me nearly fully formed in terms of plot. I know the basic arc, the beginning, middle, and end from the get go. I've read some writers are inspired by characters first, and they let the character drive the story. I tend to write more plot-driven pieces myself, but I know my characters pretty well.

I'm a planner. Even in my non-writing life I write to-do lists or lists in general. I love schedules and concrete directions. So you'd think I'd be all about an outline for my manuscripts, right? Yes and no. My earliest works, Alive Without a Trace, Chasing Dreams, Going for the Mountain, all three written and self-published before I was 16 years old were all "pantser" projects. I didn't outline whatsoever. I wrote for the love of it, and I wrote everyday. I was a kid, naive, but I was ambitious and did not know the meaning of self-doubt. As I've grown as a writer, though, my projects have become more in depth and I've taken the revision process much more seriously. In this regard, outlining has been a marvellous tool.

For my WIP (work in progress) Borrowed Time, I started as a pantser, but then I read Bleak House by Dickens for my Oxford class. (I hated Bleak House by the way.) In our discussion, we talked about the alternating narrators and I had an epiphany. I had been telling the story from Shelby's perspective, and it was stalling. So, I decided to write it from Kiki's perspective. Kiki is a ghost. I wrote five chapters from Kiki's perspective for my Creative Writing tutorial in Oxford. I didn't find it too hard to start from Part Two, but it quickly became clear that I was referencing events in Part Two that I hadn't yet written about in Part One. I needed to outline or I'd drive myself crazy when it was time to pick up Part One again. Since the story takes place over the course of a school year, I started a new word document, made two columns, made headings for each month, and created bullet points for major plot points or quotes I wanted to remember. I also color coded it. (When I hand write outlines, I use different colored pens. It makes it easier to follow and the splash of color makes it a bit more cheerful.)

I recently finished the first draft of Borrowed Time, and as I was rereading it, I realized that I wasn't happy with how I dealt with the passage of time. I hand wrote an outline (with pink and blue pen). For each chapter, I documented the month, the conflict, the emotions, and what, if anything, needed to be fixed. This method allowed me to see that the second half of Shelby's narrative is paced faster than the first. There is also a one month jump that didn't read well, so I made a note on my outline to add a scene and divide that chapter into two separate chapters.

Outlines can be very detailed or just the bare bones. You don't need a formal structure either. My undergrad adviser had us keep a "great thoughts" notebook. The name sounds intimidating or pretentious depending on how you look at it, but basically, the point was to keep a small notebook with us and write descriptions of interesting events we saw, funny things we heard, etc. I'd tried this technique before but wasn't a fan. I'd even keep a notebook by my bed because I'd get all these ideas before falling asleep. I'd promise myself I'd remember them, but never did, so I made the effort to write them down. Thank God for iPhones. Pre-iPhone, I had to get up, turn the light on. It was a production. Inspiration struck time and time again, and I'd have to keep interrupting my sleep, so now I just use the voice recorder. Also, now that I'm juggling multiple projects, I keep a notebook in my purse so I can jot down thoughts during the 45 minute bus rides to campus. This notebook is not for a formal outline, but it does serve as an outline of sorts.

For Podium Finish, I would jot down scenes or dialogue as they'd come to me, but rather than outlining the plot, I outlined my characters. I created lists documenting everything from physical attributes, fears, desires, family, words that were specific to that character. Podium Finish is told in alternating first person point of views, and one of the toughest parts of revising was creating distinct voices. Having the lists of key words or phrases made the process easier.

I'm also thinking of expanding a short story I wrote in high school. It's roughly 20,000 words as is, spanning 5 years. I feel an outline similar to what I did for BT will be necessary to reference while I'm writing. I haven't gotten very far on this, as I'm editing BT and pitching PF to publishers, but I'm excited to dust off an old piece. The characters from the piece have stuck with me similar to the way the characters of PF are still in my head six years later. It's begging to be written, and I need to get my fingers on those keys! (I'll save motivation and my writing habits for a later post.)

Happy writing!

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