Monday, March 1, 2010

Teen Inklings: Vol. 8: THE OUTLINE

Some writers find it necessary to write an outline for their book before they can put the first words on the page. I’m one of them. You may be, too!

When starting my first novel, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into things before I’d freeze up and stop. I had no idea where things were going, so I couldn’t keep up the momentum. When that happened I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough, like I was a quitter. But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get the words on the page. How frustrating!

One day I was browsing the internet, feeling like a complete failure, when I stumbled upon an interview with the popular teen author of Eragon. As it turns out, he had the same problem when he was just starting to write. Eragon is a book that stood on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 120 weeks, so obviously the author got from point A to point B. How’d he do it? Outlining.

An outline is a complete overview of the novel you intend to write. My first outline was seventeen pages long, not including my extra notes, and I wrote it in a furious one-hour brainstorming session. You don’t need to write seventeen pages (seriously, I had snippets of dialogue in that monstrosity), even only one page is fine, but you do need to write it. Writing an outline now will give you practice for that critical synopsis you’ll someday include in your proposal.

Some writers have dubbed themselves "Seat of the Pants" writers. These people like to sit down and write their books knowing little to nothing about the plot or characters involved. If that’s the way you do things, cool. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s a method that works for some people. However, it isn’t perfect. A common trait with first draft manuscripts that weren’t outlined is that they wander about from sub-plot to sub-plot, racking up the word count higher and higher. A novel like that would be a pain to edit, and I just don’t see the point. So I outline.

One argument against outlining is that it takes the surprise out of things. I haven’t found that to be true, even with my seventeen-page whopper by my side. The characters and plot have surprised me several times, sometimes in major ways. It may be a good idea to leave some things vague, though. You can just write the Monkey Princess broke out of the castle, you don’t need to outline exactly how she blew a hole in the wall with the bomb concealed in her crown and swam across the moat. Less is more sometimes, especially if you want some explosive surprises. Just make sure you have your major plot elements down.

When outlining it’s important to keep an open mind. At some point you’ll leave that Outliner’s Omniscience and write your first draft. Once you get onto that nitty-gritty level with things you may realize that some of your earlier plot points don’t make sense anymore. Good! Change them so that they do. You may want to write a new outline at this point, or fix the old one to suit your changes. It isn’t an issue unless you treat it like one.

If you want more info on exactly how to turn your story idea into an outline, visit this web page: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Note: No Seat of the Pants writers were harmed in the writing of this article… lol