Thursday, December 08, 2011

Outlines: How I've Learned Not To Hate Them

I've done a lot of book signings over the years. Different people in different places ask different questions, but the one question that always comes up is: "Do you write outlines for your books."

Outlines are funny things. I didn’t write one for Sex, Murder And A Double Latte but then why would I have? I started that book with the intention of just writing a short little story to help distract me from a difficult divorce (is there any other kind?). It wasn’t until I was half way through it that I decided to make it into a book and then I wrote out a general game plan as to how I wanted the story to go but I wouldn’t call it an outline.

The 2nd book I wrote (and my 3rd book published) was So Much For My Happy Ending.  That was basically a highly fictionalized autobiography so I didn’t have to write an outline. I knew EXACTLY how that story went. I had already lived it. It poured out of my like a tidal wave of pent up emotion.

But when I got to Passion, Betrayal And Killer Highlights (3rd book written, 2nd published) I decided I was going to be ├╝ber professional about it and wrote a detailed outline. Everything was planned out. And then I started actually writing the book. Guess what? The outline didn’t hold up. Or it would have  held up if I had wanted to turn in a 200 page manuscript to my editor but I knew my editor would tell me that was too short.  Mitch Albom can get away with writing a 200 page hardcover, I can’t and although I had planned out each chapter in the outline things were moving at a much faster pace than I had anticipated. So I threw the outline out and proceeded without it. I tried writing an outline for Obsession, Deceit And Really Dark Chocolate and although there was no problem with the length, its structure didn’t hold up once I tried to flesh it out in a manuscript so I threw that out too.

It wasn’t until I was ready to write Lust, Loathing And A Little Lip Gloss that it finally dawned on me what my problem was:

I hate writing outlines.

Hate, hate, hate it. It’s right up there with one of my least favorite things to do as a writer, perhaps second to the last round of edits when I’m checking for missed spelling errors and somebody else’s typos. But that said, just like checking for spelling errors, writing an outline can be an important task. They help to add structure to a book and can really help keep the pacing and action strong.  But when I sit down at my computer knowing that I must start the process of creating a book by writing an outline I get an instant headache. It’s like telling a small child that he has to start his meal with brussel sprouts with only a vague promise that after he’s finished them he’ll get something better to eat.  True, that means he’s saving the best for last but it might be hard getting the kid to the table. And when I think I have to start a writing project with an outline it really is hard to get me to the table. Once I’m there I rush through the chore neglecting details by metaphorically tossing them to the dogs (or rabbit...we are talking about vegetables here) or shoving them under my plate so I can hurry up and get to the good part.

But actually starting the book itself, introducing (or in the case of Sophie, reintroducing) myself to characters and a new storyline...well that’s my cocktail. I love that part.  I realized that if I could just start with THAT I would be rushing to the table whenever it was time to start a new project.
So now I begin my books by writing about 15 pages without anything. Then I’ll stop long enough to write a 2 page synopsis which gives me a general direction. Once I get to 40 or 50 pages of manuscript that’s when I write an outline. I did this with both Lust, Loathing And A Little Black Dress and Vows, Vendettas & A Little Black Dress. By the time I’m done with those first few chapters I know who my characters are, how long it will take them to do the things I want them to do and I know  how I want the story to go.  Perhaps more importantly, I am always excited about what I’m writing by the time I’m done with those pages which makes putting together an outline seem like less of a chore.  The promise of what’s to come after the brussel sprouts isn’t vague, it’s totally tangible and I’ll happily submit to the work of creating an outline in order to get to the main course.
I realize this approach won’t work for everyone but if you have a hard time sticking to outlines you might want to try it. If nothing else you’ll get to have a cocktail before your veggies. 

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