The Outline; Friend or Foe?

The first in our series of self-publishing blog posts comes from SIP Head Honcho and resident Author, Jay Norry.

There was a brief online discussion the other day during which I was asked if I use an outline when I write. I couldn’t be my wordy self at the time, and gave a brief response. Then I got to thinking about it, and I realized it might have helped me to have a little insight into the outline phenomenon before I started writing books. Although I’m not some hugely accomplished writer, self-publishing two books and the better part of a third has seen some real changes in my process. Among them: meeting the outline.

My first book, “Stumbling Backasswards Into the Light”, was never intended to be a complicated story with lots of character development and plot twists. I saw the scenes play out and I wrote them down. It was like watching a movie that I could pause and rewind but not fast forward. I labored over that book way more than I needed to, but an outline would not really have helped much. The book ended up being just what I wanted it to be, a guide for those beginning to ask questions about the nature of life and an engaging reminisce for those who have been asking such questions for a long time.

When I realized it was time to write a story that was going to take three books to tell, my whole process had to change. For one thing, the entire story was right there in front of me; the first three scenes I was treated to were the final scene from each book. That gave me the inspiration to start writing, but I needed way more than inspiration here. I needed some serious organizing power. This thing needs to happen before we find out this about so-and-so, every character has features and mannerisms that must be kept consistent, show don’t tell (but how the hell do you show something like that?!), don’t let your knowledge of what will happen later affect how you describe someone or something now, et cetera, et cetera . . .

Just writing the story in proper order with so many characters was a challenge I hadn’t dealt with before. With my first book, I watched a single screen play out the story before my inner eye. This story was banks of screens everywhere I looked, telling me everything there was to know about everyone involved and everything that had happened, was happening, and was going to happen all at once. It was a delightful confusing internal kaleidoscope.

I write longhand, and the mess of scraps of papers reminding me what to do after this or before that piled up while writing book one of this trilogy. They got me through the longhand first draft and the first few chapters of book two, along with the help of a character cheat sheet that grew to multiple sheets. In the midst of all of this chaos, I made a new friend.

Yes, my new friend is the outline. I have always seen the need to wear a variety of hats whenever a project worth doing presented itself. Every serious endeavor must be planned, engineered, undertaken and then tested for quality and effectiveness.

In life, we must either become a person of many facets or join a team of people to drive a project from: nothing; to idea; to work in progress; to completion. In writing, the author must play all of these roles or fail to fulfill the potential of their own stories. No one has any idea how many great novels have rotted away in someone’s desk drawer, pending a writer’s final edit or awaiting a submission letter that would never be written.

The people or the parts of yourself that constitute your writing team need to have very different personalities. The organizer writes the outline, for me at least. The organizer doesn’t give a damn about swimming about in the creation of an emotional tone. The organizer makes sure the story flows; relevant information and events happen, and at the proper time; and all the facts of the story are kept straight.

When it’s a good, complex story, an outline can give the author’s creative side safe boundaries to work within. Maintaining an active role in the story is not the author’s job or goal, ideally; minimizing the reader’s awareness of that presence is important in putting the story and its characters first. A not-so-complex story would probably benefit from an outline; but if the writer is used to juggling a healthy handful of ideas in their head all at once, it’s not really necessary. I can foresee completing projects without one, certainly.

Many of the books I need to write will need an outline, and my organizer looks forward to writing them. In a completely different way, my creative side looks forward to reading the outline bit by bit as I write the story. Both aspects are important, as is their satisfaction.

At this point, for me, the perfect outline is a simpler telling of the story. Each chapter is given a section on a page in a notebook. A few sentences tell what actions and interactions need to take place in this chapter. Little squares and bubbles fill up the rest of that chapter’s one-third of a page; essential reminders about a character’s mood or features or mindset, or some clever turn of phrase I’ve come up with that I want to remember, or some detail about architecture or room layout that I wouldn’t normally mention but will be relevant later.

The whole story can be laid out with a good outline in a way that motivates the writer’s creative spirit to come out and play. An outline does more than give a writer boundaries; it gives his or her creativity a well-constructed playground. The fences aren’t the important part of a good playground; it’s the swings and the teeter-totter and the climbing bars that matter.

Make sure your playground is a fun place that you want to go, first by picking a story worth writing and then by writing a compelling outline worthy of the tale. I write in pencil, because the outline is allowed to be fluid as the story whispers secrets that I don’t always get to know right away. The playground I create with the outline that I write is a place I will be spending a lot of time playing in, so I make sure it’s a place that I both enjoy while I’m there and that I think about while I’m not. The outline is my bridge between the big picture and the day’s work.

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