Friday, March 03, 2006

Outlines: hoop or help?

I was going to post about the process of writing an outline, since I just turned in the outline and first chapter of Voice of Crow. But thriller writer JA Konrath blogged it for me. Nice guy, huh?

A big "What he said" applies to almost his entire post. Our processes differ mostly in the specifics of the outline's form. I don't list the players for each chapter/scene; heck, I don't even know exactly where the chapters break.

I describe the events and try to impart a sense of their emotional and thematic significance. My editor wants to know not just "What happens next?" but also
  • "What does it mean to the characters?"
  • "How do these events contribute to the overall theme?"
  • "Who wants to order Thai for lunch?"
As I mentioned in a comment to Joe's post, each publisher wants a different length, style, and focus for an outline. I know an author whose editor wanted to know only the basics: Who, when, and which planet?

One might be tempted to interpret a request for a detailed outline as some kind of vote of nonconfidence: we don't trust you to write a good story, so tell us exactly what happens and if we like it, we'll show our approval in the form of a nice little checky-poo.

But it's not like that at all. I think publishers ask for outlines for two main reasons, both of which are meant to help the author:
  1. Like high school English teachers who ask for a term paper outline a month before the paper's due, they want to make sure you're not putting off the novel until the last minute (not that I EVER did that with a term paper or, say, changed my topic the day before it was due).
  2. They want to help you keep the story on track, which is to say, keep it from sucking.
For instance, the first draft of my VOC proposal called for a real downer ending. My editor didn't say, "Dude, you're bumming me out, show me the happy," but she asked some pointed questions about why the heroine would let certain events occur without putting up more of a fight. I realized her concerns were spot-on, worked to create a more coherent plot, and ended up with a much more satisfying story, one I'm actually excited to begin writing.

As in,

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Interesting. I tell my students to outline AFTER they've written a piece, but they're much shorter. I do feel writing should grow organically, but, again, different circumstances.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 3/03/2006 9:55 AM

Do you have them outline in between drafts, or after the paper is finished? If it's the latter, to what purpose?

An outline leaves a lot of room for writing organically. I figure out basically what happens, but how it happens I invent as I travel through the story. And outlines aren't written in stone.

Furthermore, selling on proposal with a multi-book deal gives you no choice--you have to submit an outline. That's the way the business works.

And I like it that way, because I get paid part of the advance before I've even written the novel. I get treated the way a professional in any other business would. In return, I have to behave like a professional and not place others at the mercy of my alleged muse.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 3/03/2006 11:04 AM


Ah, the elipsis of procrastination!

Thanks for the outline link. I'm in a very slow jog through chapter one now, but I've got an outline in my very near future.

Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 3/03/2006 2:09 PM

Ah, Rob, you picked up on that. It was meant to be a dramatic pause, but it turned out to signify seven hours of doing other things. The plumbers arrived, y'see...

For an extension of my last comment, see Joe Konrath's comment on the post I linked to above. I think it's the 29th comment, at 11:16.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 3/03/2006 2:57 PM

I have them outline after writing to makes sure they've organized well, but it isn't a requirement. Your situation is much different.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 3/03/2006 3:43 PM

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