Today we turn over our regularly scheduled Tuesday craft post to Donna Carrick, of Carrick Publishing, for a guest post on the art of outlining. Donna has an additional article about it on her web site. Don't miss it!
A Weapon in the War Against Writers Block
by Donna Carrick
When it comes to story outlines, there seem to be as many opinions as there are authors.
Some will not begin a novel until they’ve constructed a voluminous “story-tree”. Others prefer to draw a loose arc, allowing for deviations as the tale unfolds.
Still others balk at preparing even a simple set of bullet-points, believing the outline enforces perimeters that restrict the natural creative flow.
I’ve had success using several different methods, leading me to believe there are no rules, only the individual needs of each writer and each story. The level of detail required in an outline will be in direct correlation to the complexity of the novel.
When I wrote The Noon God, words flowed organically from my mind to the keyboard in a series of sittings. I knew the story in entirety before I began. Even though I didn’t scribble a single word in preparation, I’d spent the better part of two years becoming familiar with my characters, their family ties and their conflicts.
By the time I started writing, an outline would have been redundant. The Noon God was already fully constructed. Not once did I deviate from the original story line.
Gold And Fishes was an entirely different matter. Because of the nature of the story and the sensitivity of the subject matter (almost 300,000 lost in the Southeast Asia Boxing Day tsunami of 2004) it was imperative to remain true to the events of that disaster. To ask less of myself would have been to disrespect the very real victims and their families.
My outline for Gold And Fishes was detailed and complex. It began with a page-by-page timeline drawn from daily news reports. Each page represented a day’s news coverage, handwritten in bullet points with references to each source. Then, at the bottom of each page, I outlined my fictional account of aid worker Ayla Harris’s struggle to find her missing brother-in-law while assisting with hospital duties and body recovery in Banda Aceh.
Gold And Fishes was a labour of love. The research involved in writing the novel spanned 6 months. Each day I spent from 1-3 hours perusing world-wide on-line journals and newspapers, constructing story details within a global catastrophe of monumental magnitude.
This was preliminary work, before I had written a single word.
For The First Excellence I used a combination approach to outlining — drawing on both of my previous methods. Originally titled Fa-ling’s Map, the story arc was formed organically in my mind long before I began to write. It first came to me while we were in China in 2003 and fermented for years until I set out to write it in 2008.
By the time I’d finished in 2009, The First Excellence was more than the sum of its intended parts. What started out as a tribute to our adopted daughter became a complex tale of murder, kidnapping, political intrigue and suspense.
However, none of this growth would have been possible without an outline. I loved my original organic story idea, but it could not carry me, a crime writer, to the final page. So I set out to draw an arc and a chapter outline, loosely mapped and open to many deviations, most of which caught me by surprise when my characters presented them to me.
I wrote an outline, but didn’t follow it with any great rigor. Still, it offered a sense of story development upon which I could hang my research. Without it, the novel would have collapsed.
What now? My current ‘work in progress’ is the Fa-ling sequel to The First Excellence. It involves a high degree of complexity and multiple story lines. In order to ensure all pieces will come together, I’ve created a story-board. Across the top of the page I’ve listed the various story lines. Under each header I’ve jotted the developments that are to occur within each line.
The scenes were initially jotted onto sticky notes, so I could easily change the sequence. This allowed me to place ‘action’ scenes at regular intervals and ensure events followed a believable chronology.
Without a story-board to lead me through the labyrinth of plot twists, there would be no hope of crafting this into a novel.
Once the board was complete, I converted it into a chapter outline. Throughout the writing process, I am deviating from the outline and have even dropped one story line because it didn’t fit with the flow.
In my experience, the writing process can be compared to cooking a gourmet meal. The outline is much like preparing the individual ingredients in advance. Doing so reduces the cooking time and effort that will be needed. Used correctly, the preliminary work can greatly enhance the finished product.
Does preparing an outline hinder the organic flow of the story? In my opinion, a strong outline should be considered part of the creative process. Rather than hinder the flow, it can strengthen it and lend consistency to the overall work.
Is an outline always necessary?
No. In less complex stories, an outline might be redundant, as it was for me with my first novel.
As the complexity of a story increases, so does the need for a well-crafted outline.
Without an outline, many stories will not make it to the finish line.
So, what do you think? Do you outline? Sort of outline? Pants it? Complicate it? Jump in and share your tips, and one of you will win a copy of Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan.
Martina & Cam