Saturday, March 28, 2009

To Outline or Not? For Me, There's No Question!

Back in the day when I wrote romance, I was pretty much a seat-of-my-pants writer. I knew where I wanted a book to begin and I knew where it had to end (at happily ever after, of course). What happened in between? Well, I’d pretty much figure that out as I went along.

My first real experience with outlining came when I was asked to write a Ghosts of Fear Street book for RL Stine. The line hadn’t debuted yet, and the book I was contracted for was either #3 or #5 (it was a while ago, and the ol’ memory ain’t what it used to be!). The process was arduous to say the least. The way I remember it (see above), we did 12 complete versions of the outline, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. We worked and hammered and sweated our way through hours of phone calls discussing what needed to be included, what needed to change, and how the book would fit in overall with the line that wasn’t a line yet since none of the books had yet to be written, much less published.

We got it done. And I wrote the book, "Fright Knight." That’s when I got a phone call from my editor who said, "Oh, didn’t we tell you we wanted it written in first person?"

Needless to say, outlining did not leave a good taste in my mouth.

But then a few years later, I started writing mysteries. And that’s when I discovered that outlining really can be a writer’s best friend (as long as you don’t have anyone demanding 12 versions of your outline and forgetting to tell you to write in first person!). These days, I outline a book thoroughly before I ever begin writing it, and believe me, I’ve learned that for me, this is the way to go.

But have I learned my lesson? I just finished a book under my Miranda Bliss name. It’s called "Murder Has a Sweet Tooth," and it’s due out in December. I had to write it over the holidays. I was rushed. I was frantic. I wrote without an outline, and boy, did I pay the price! It took me far too long to write the book, and I continually ran into the kinds of things that will sink any mystery plot, things like a confused time line, characters who knew things long before they should have, clues that were missing, and others that were so obvious, it hurt.

The good news is, it all got taken care of once my first draft was done. The other good news? This time, I really have learned my lesson. I’m currently working on the outline for Pepper Martin mystery #6, "Tomb With a View," and as God is my witness, I swear I won’t begin writing until I’ve got every single chapter worked out.

It will save me time and a whole lot of angst. And since the whole series is written in first person, I won’t have to worry about that, either!

How about you? Outline or no outline? And how does it work for you?


Jess Granger said...

Hee hee hee,

Hey Angie, do I outline?

When I first started writing, I didn't outline. I'd write about half a book, then stop cold because I realized I wrote myself into a ditch.

I'd have to go back and fix it.

For the book I'm writing now, I did three outlines. I did a rough, write out of the plot, telling the bones of the story to myself without worrying about anything.

Then I took that and refined it into the formal 10 page synopsis.

After that, I took the rough and broke up my plot into chapter chunks so I could lay out the pace of the story.

Now I write by flipping back and forth from the rough, which has some notes on emotional, world building, and character details, and the chapter summaries, which are mostly plot points.

It's working. This book is going really well, and the outline has saved me a lot of frustration.


Casey said...

Yeah, I think that's the adventage,Jess,no getting written into corners. I find outlining saves me tons of time. When I'm going through the outlining process, I feel like I'm wasting time, but I make up for it during the writing.

Angie Fox said...

I'm more of a character-driven writer than a plot-driven writer, so you'd think outlining would not be a top priority, but it's the opposite. If I don't outline, my story runs away without me. It even happens when I do outline.

Just ask Jess. I'm about eight chapters into A Tale of Two Demon Slayers and I sent Jess the outline a week or so ago, just to show her where I was headed. Plus, I had a feeling things were going to get out of hand.

She diagnosed the issue - too many strange characters (both a weakness of mine and a strength if done well). We eliminated about four characters and smoothed out the end, saving me lots of time.

azteclady said...

Here is a question for you writerly types that, for a reader like me, is an interesting conundrum.

What if you outline a plot that, once you write the characters into it, so to speak (if that's what you do, I have no clue really), means neverending contorsions to try and make their actions match their personalities/character/quirks?

Erica said...

azteclady, I'd say that'd mean I wuz doin it wrong :)

I agree with Angie that outlining is just as important from a character perspective. I'm an outliner and my plots tend to emerge from the characters. If I get as far as 'that character just wouldn't do that' then the whole thing is fundamentally flawed.

I'd have to rethink the characters from scratch, or think of another way for the plot to get from A to B to C.

Jess Granger said...

I agree, plot points like the characters travel from planet A to planet B hardly ever change. In fact, I don't think they ever change in my case.

Motivations don't change, because I decide what motivates the characters before I write the book.

What I leave room for, and often surprises me is the emotions. Sometimes characters don't feel what I'd expect them to feel in a certain situation. Sometimes that changes their internal dialog, and sometimes how they come around to the climax, but the actual plot points really don't change.

For example, I could have the heroine and the hero go into a cave to seek shelter from a storm. Then inside the cave they're attacked by some alien cave beast and they fight for their lives.

Those things probably wouldn't change from my outline because they have nice clear motivations for going into the cave and fighting for their lives.

If my heroine doesn't really care much if she lives or dies, and is a little careless when battling the beastie, that might surprise me. But it will still lead to the resolution of the h/h defeating the beastie.


Casey said...

I just left a comment that was especially brilliant...and for some reason, it didn't post! I was replying to Azteclady and said something about how outlining doesn't happen independently of characterization. Like Erica, I agree that if you come to a bump in the road (figuratively speaking!) where characterization and plot don't agree, it's back to the drawing board! Only the first time I said it, it was much more eloquent and wise than that!

Angie Fox said...

Yes, if characterization and plot aren't meshing, it probably means there is a better story in there somewhere and a plot change is in order. (assuming you like your characters)

It's not uncommon. For example, when a writer proposes a book to a publishing house, she'll write up a plot outline. However, once the characters get involved, that outline rarely matches the finished book. Editors know this and are fine with it. They just want a good story.

I know a lot of writers who will re-visit the plot outline at around chapter 7 or 8, then again about 2/3 of the way through the book, just to tweak and change. A writer has to follow the characters and the story, not the other way around.