O is for Outline #AtoZChallenge

How an Annoying Task Can Save Your Butt Many Times Over

A guest post by Glen Robinson

I once told a writing student that: “Writing is easy. You just have to know where to start, where to stop, and what to put in between.” In essence, what I was talking about was the outline.

Now I can already hear many of you groaning, thinking back to your junior high days when you had to learn to diagram a sentence as well as learn to outline in preparation for writing essays. Those outlines were pretty highly structured, with Capital A, followed by #1, followed by lower case a, etc. under each section and subsection. The outline I am going to talk to you about is a little more free flowing, but the purpose is basically the same.

There’s two main reasons to have an outline, nay three: (1) outlines serve as a framework–a skeleton–for your written piece, and give it predictable structure; (2) outlines make it easier to write by telling you what goes where; and (3) outlines make writing faster.

I realize that there are authors who say they start each book by sitting in front of a blank screen and just typing. From experience, I would say that the danger would be that the story would go in directions where it couldn’t be handled, and there would be lots of blind alleys writing that way. Inevitably, working without an outline calls for much more time in the rewrite phase, and since I hate rewriting, I will do what I can to shorten that time in purgatory.

My first novel was written in this fashion. It was an old-fashioned space opera that was pretty contrived and got my characters constantly into trouble that they couldn’t get out of. It also took two years to write, and I was constantly out of ideas how to get the story back on track. Looking back, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble by sitting down and charting out in advance where I wanted the story to go.

Here’s how my novels take form today. I usually have a brainstorm while I am traveling or mowing the lawn or washing the dishes or some other mundane task. It’s usually just a sentence or a paragraph, such as “A battle between vampires and Amish.”

The first chance I get, I write it down, then give myself permission to forget it. If the story idea comes up again and again, I mull it over in my mind and eventually try to flesh out my original idea a bit more, say several paragraphs.

When the story develops into maybe two pages of notes, it’s time to start charting it out by chapters. I determine how many pages the publisher is going to want–or how many pages the story can really carry–and I break it up into chapters with about 12-15 pages per chapter.

At the writer’s workshop I attended in Park City, Utah two years ago, they told us that chapters can be any length, from a few sentences to hundreds of pages. But usually the time to change chapters is when you make a major scene change, or start telling the story from the perspective of another character. I understand and appreciate that, and very likely I will break up my chapters using this method in future books. But my intention in appointing 12-15 pages to a chapter is to help with the outline. Then, within each chapter, I plot out 3-4 scenes.

My writing is done in scenes. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The disadvantages are that it sometimes makes transitions between scenes a little difficult, and there’s more focus on moving the plot along than getting us more familiar with the characters. When you are writing a character-driven story, that can be awkward.

The advantage is that you can visualize a scene better than you can a chapter. Plus, if you think of writing a book as a series of scenes of 4-6 pages each, writing the massive thing is a more doable project. It’s the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

So when I start outlining, I need to have a pretty sharp view of how I want to write the opening chapters. That vision becomes more cloudy and scarce as the chapters get further and further away. That’s OK. As I write, I come back to the outline and update future chapters. Most of the time, the characters and the story itself tell me where it is going. I never lose track of where I want to end up at the very end. But how I get there changes as the story writes itself.

Julianna Baggott, my teacher at Park City, talked about taking big pads of paper–I would recommend rolls of butcher paper–and outlining through a series of big circles. She’s write things about the major characters here and there, and then draw bridges between the circles as she sees how everything connects. This is a technique that was also recommended when I was preparing for my doctoral dissertation. It’s great for brainstorming ideas, especially when you have lots of disconnected ideas and you want to see how you can plug them into the story.

But once you have a pretty good handle on how to get that first chapter written, you should be up and running.

A little about Glen Robinson

He is a professor of communication with 10 published books in multiple genres. He is presently delving into the exciting and frightening world of independent publishing under the pen name of Jackson Paul. I have just self published two books with four more on the way in coming months. My most recent are an apocalyptic novel entitled The Kiss of Night and a steampunk adventure entitled Tom Horn vs. The Warlords of Krupp.

Check out his website HERE.

Follow him on Twitter: @glenchen

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