Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thursday's Novel Writing Tip: Outlines

The regular feature on Thursday will be an update on my novel-in-progress, Justice in H-Town. I will be posting new chapters as I finish them over at Texas Pulp Writer. Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery, the book I reference in today's column, also has chapters posted at Texas Pulp Writer.

Part of this feature will also be on the topic of how to write a novel. First up: Outlining.

On my first novel, Treason at Hanford, I outlined everything using 4x6 index cards on a bulletin board. Treason at Hanford is a third-person, multiple-POV story. To make sure certain characters were not gone long from the stage, I color-coded each card. I was able to see, at a glance, that my Japanese submariners had not been on the main stage for 4 or 5 chapters and could shift things around.

The best thing about this approach was avoiding the blank-page syndrome. Since I had mapped out every in advance, when it came time for me to write, I merely picked up the next note card, read my few notes, and start writing. I never had to wonder what I was going to write. I just wrote that scene.

Some may think that spontaneity is lost in this method. To some degree, it was. My spontaneity was sitting at my desk, a stack of blank note cards, seeing the 'movie' in my head and writing it all out, scene by scene, on the cards. But that didn't mean that certain things and characters couldn't have their say in my book. There were a couple of characters that I had in the book merely to move the plot forward. During the writing of their scenes, little nuances appeared that gave them depth and, on one occasion, veered me off into a small tangent. The nice thing about that tangent is the good feedback I've received by those who have read the novel. What I wrote as throwaway scenes are among the favorite scenes from the readers.

Another fear that some people have of outlining seems to be character development. That is, if you focus on plot, one's characters might become more cardboard and less human. I found the opposite happened. Harry Truman is a known quantity. But within the confines of certain scenes, Truman and the other characters started to live and breathe and took on a life of their own. In fact, the trajectory of one character completely changed during the process of writing the first draft. I expected that character to do one thing and he did the complete opposite. It was a surprise to me...and I was the author.

Fatigue is a constant challenge for any writer. I suffered from it, I'll admit. I always wrote at 10pm and there were certain evenings where I didn't feel creative at all. The best thing about an advanced outline is that you don't really need to *be* creative. Just write the scene on the next card and be done with it. Having that note card staring at me was good incentive. It blew the blank-page syndrome out of the water. I *knew* exactly what I needed to write that night. Most evenings, I fired up the Powerbook and wrote the scene-of-the-day. Some of those scenes were merely first drafts. But one scene in particular took on a life of its own, showing me a certain aspect of a character that I had not, to that time, known.

Here is the greatest case (for me, personally) that outlining helps produce a book. I wrote the first draft of Treason at Hanford from July 2005 to June 2006 minus a three-month hiatus in the fall of 2005. I added up the weeks and it amounted to 9-10 months to write a 114,000 word first draft.

I started thinking about my current book in August 2006. We are now one week shy of August 2008...and I don't have a completed first draft. Granted, the book's focus changed as well as its protagonists but those are mere excuses. I intentionally started writing this second book using a different method than I did when I wrote my first book. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. But, the good thing about mistakes: we can correct them.

In summary: judging from two novels, outlining seems to be the best route for me to complete a novel. It may not work for you. The best recommendation I can give is to try any method to get that first draft complete. After that, take stock of the method you used to produce a novel and determine if it was a good method. Try something different because you just have to. You're going to want to know if there are better or worse methods to create stories. But don't be afraid to throw up your hands and go back to what works. No matter what, get that writing done. Editing can be a pain but without a first draft, you can't edit anything.

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