Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Outlining: Roadmap or Straightjacket?

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to teach with Jeffery Deaver at a writers’ conference organized by M is for Mystery. The topic of outlining came up. Jeffery explained that he relied heavily on outlining to map out and sequence the twists and turns in his intricately plotted thrillers.

However, he said that he had experimented with different techniques for organizing his outlines. One time when he was on vacation in Hawaii, he decided to write the major plot points for his current project on Post-it notes and arrange them on the wall of his hotel room in the sequence he wished them to unfold in the book. He stayed up late one evening getting everything just so, and went to bed confident that he had arranged the Post-it notes on the wall in a way that represented the best possible construction for his book.

Unfortunately, when he returned to the room later the next day, he found that the humid Hawaiian air had further weakened the famously weak glue of the notes and they had all fallen to the floor in a random jumble.

Were the (Hawaiian) gods trying to tell Jeffery that outlining is a waste of time? I don’t think so. I’ve long ago decided that the decision to outline is a completely personal one and the approach that’s right for one writer will not necessarily be the approach that works for another.

In my own experience with outlining, what I’ve found works best for me is a “lightweight” outline that describes the plot points for each chapter in a paragraph or two. This gives me the confidence I need to start writing and stops me from worrying about investing time in scenes that will later need to be cut because they don’t fit into the (final) plot.

As an example, here’s my outline entry for the first chapter of Candy from Strangers:

Riordan is playing in a band at “The House of Shields” on Montgomery. Duckworth is in drag in front of the band singing jazz standards. He’s very convincing as a woman and has a sexy voice to boot. It’s “fleet week” and there are a large number of sailors in the audience. Duckworth flirts with a handsome sailor in the front row who apparently hasn’t figured out that Duckworth is a man. Duckworth does something brazen to tip the sailor off (like pulling down the front of his dress), and the sailor’s buddies begin hooting with laughter. Embarrassed, the sailor charges the stage and takes a swing at Duckworth, hitting him in the eye. Riordan drops his bass and hammers the sailor with several punches before the rest of the sailors in the audience swarm the band stand and a general melee breaks out.
You can compare this with the actual text of the first chapter, which I’ve put up on my web site to provide a sneak peak of the book to interested readers before it’s published in September.

The down side to outlining is that it can kill spontaneity or leave you with a book that’s too “linear” or simply plotted. This happened to me with my first draft of Vulture Capital. I had written a monstrous 80-page outline and found after I completed the first draft that the book was flat and lacking in complexity. It was only after I worked with screenwriter Judith Roscoe at the Squaw Valley Screenwriting Workshop to turn the novel into a screenplay, that I was able to pick apart the plot and reassemble it in a more satisfying construct.

The bottom line is you should do just as much outlining as you personally need to feel comfortable starting your novel … and not a wit more.

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