Thursday, August 14, 2014

Outlining: The Best Friend You've Never Met

by Grant Blackwood

For better or worse, stubbornness comes as a standard feature in a writer's brain. It's like that mysterious undercoating for your new car. You can tell the dealership you don't want it, but you get it anyway.

In my case, stubbornness was that welcome hand at my back, pushing me along. Stubbornness also kept me unpublished for more years than I care to think about. Stubbornness kept me away from outlining.

I wanted to be one of "those" writers, the kind that flies by the seat of his pants, churning out fantastic stories by simply dumping his imagination onto paper. Nine long years into the process I realized I wasn't one of "those" writers. I needed a plan for my novel, so I turned to outlining. And the first book I outlined got published.

Consider this analogy: A woodworker decides to build a beautiful armoire. He drives to the hardware store, grabs random boards and handfuls of nails, then returns home, dumps his supplies on the garage floor like a piles of pick-up-sticks and starts hammering away. What are the chances he'll end up with the armoire he envisioned? You know the answer. Had the woodworker followed a plan his chances of succeeding would have skyrocketed. The same goes for a writer tackling a novel — arguably a much more complex project than an armoire.

Let's look at why I resisted outlining and why most writers do:
  • Outlining is too formal, too restrictive.
  • Outlining will suck all the fun out of the process.
  • Outlining will rob me of the journey of discovery.
None of these are necessarily true. Let's look at what an outline can be:
  • A page of bullets highlighting the most critical parts of the story.
  • A mini-story that runs from five pages to forty pages.
  • A loose flow chart of scenes and chapters.
  • A formal outline with roman numerals and letters.
An outline is whatever you want it to be. It's simply the blueprint or roadmap of your story containing things like:

Character motivations and goals
  • Plot points large and small, from beats that drive your scenes along to pivot points that take the plot in a wholly different direction.
  • Bits of characterization or setting that further immerse the reader into your story.
  • Brief descriptions of a character's arc.
The benefits of outlining your story are myriad: It lets you identify small mistakes you can fix without having to rewrite hundred of pages; it lets you see the flow of your plot, from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end; it helps you smooth out continuity issues (imagine a twisting row of ten thousand dominos) that would otherwise turn into untamable monsters on page 500. (Forgive the mixed metaphor); outlining trains your mind to be an "on the fly" planner so in later years you can in fact be one of "those" writers.

Fear not outlining. To use yet another more literary metaphor from Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, outlining is every writer's Boo Radley, that scary neighbor that turns out to be your best friend.

The New York Times bestselling author of the Briggs Tanner series, (The End of Enemies, The Wall of Night, and An Echo of War) Grant Blackwood is also the co-author of the Fargo Adventure Series (Spartan Gold, Lost Empire, and The Kingdom) with Clive Cussler, as well as the co-author of the #1 NYT bestseller, Dead or Alive, with Tom Clancy, and the new thriller, The Kill Switch, with James Rollins.  A U. S. Navy veteran, Grant spent three years aboard a guided missile frigate as an Operations Specialist and a Pilot Rescue Swimmer. Grant lives in Colorado, where he is working his own standalone series starring a new hero.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.