Thursday, March 4, 2010

To Outline or Not to Outline

My friend called last night, and I told her what I'd been working on. Rewriting the end of a chapter so that it worked better, and set up for something I desperately wanted to do at a later date in the book because it would amuse me. Then I admitted I wasn't sure where to take things after I was finished with this chapter.

She immediately told me "Outline! Outlines are your friend."

I had to disagree. Probably a mite stronger than I should have.

Outlines work great for her. Which is awesome. Go her. But I've tried using outlines before. They just don't do it for me. I either don't follow them at all, or I try to and then get frustrated when I don't follow them. I've tried several different forms of outlines: chapter by chapter, plot webs, they just don't work at all well.

Why? Honestly, I've no idea. I just know they don't work for me. I know this, and I have ways of keeping track of things I want to have happen, but I don't set them in the concrete of an outline.

There's one thing you have to keep in mind while writing a book. Not everything out there is going to work for you. Something, like outlines, that works really well for some might not work at all for you. The key is to find what does work, and stick with it. No matter what others might tell you, or try to convince you of otherwise.

For me, I have a list of major events I want to have happen. The list is flexible. I can add things to it, or take things away if I later decide they just don't work well, and I don't have to worry about rearranging everything around them. This list is kept on a white board in my office by my computer, so I can consulted it frequently. Also on this board is another list, this one per chapter.

Once I finish a chapter, the chapter list is erased, the number at the top is changed, and the list beneath is changed. This list isn't a series of things that must happen in this chapter, but rather a list of ideas. It's a brainstorming thing.

Here's an example of what my lists look like. A general plot list looks like this:

Things to Happen
Meet Boy
Big event
Meet people
Hook-up with boy
Bad person does bad thing to get MC to do something
Something happens that doesn't fit this book
Big Revelation
Minor character's relationship (which plays an important part in tensions*)
Tragic event that must be overcome

*Stuff in ( ) isn't actually part of a list

As things on the list happen, I check them off. If they don't work, they get crossed out, and later erased to make room for other ideas or events I want to keep track of.

A chapter list looks like this:

Chapter #
Run into Char
-discover something previously unknown about Char
-takes MC to place
-Person joins them, goes w/MC
Char 2 takes MC to place
First time MC does something related to tragic event

Needs to Happen:
-short background story
Char "drops" in
-MC makes Char 3 replace broken thing

Again, a very flexible list of things that need to happen, and could happen. If I'm struggling with a chapter, this list can change several times in the course of a day. Unlike the "Things to Happen" list, which is done before I ever start writing the first chapter, the "Chapter #" list is done before or shortly after the beginning of each chapter. Like I said, it's my brain storming list.

I suppose you could this an outline, of a sort. It's certainly not my writing buddy's idea of an outline. But that's all right. What works for her doesn't have to work for me. Often times, it doesn't work for me at all. That's all right, too.

The important thing is not to argue about it, or insist that what works for you will work for everyone else too. It's important to try new things, to find the best fit. But don't do something if it doesn't help. It will only wind up hurting you in the long run.

Happy writing!

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