Monday, March 26, 2012

To Outline or Not to Outline

When I first began studying the writing craft in the early 1990s, everything I heard and read about starting a novel included full blown outlines. Some encouraged plotting out each scene and each chapter. I tried it, but accomplished nothing except a full wastebasket.

I can't say what the best way to write a novel is, only that each writer has to find their own tools. Getting through the sticky middle is the hardest part, and some do need that outline to plod through the swamp. For me, though, if I did a full-blown outline, my characters stopped doing everything except sitting in their interview chair, drumming their fingers and looking at me with a cocked brow and a "are you serious" kind of look in their eyes. My characters don't like being told what to do anymore than I do.

I can still get stuck in the swampy middle though, so I had to find a way to make it all work for me and my pig-headed characters. It's simple really. I get to know the characters inside and out, their dreams, fears, hopes, what they love, what they dislike, what their goals are, what haunts their dreams, what fills their fantasies, clear down to what they like to eat and drink to their habits, all of it. But none of it is set in stone. I always give them room to grow or change their minds. Then I decide on the one pivotal act that sends the characters on their downward slide. That is where the beginning is. And I always know what the ending will be - not how it happens but the end result. I often know a handful of important events that lead to the end, but basically my characters have free rein.

All of that is how my books have come to be reviewed as having the best surprise endings. It's because I don't plan how, just the "what." The characters, in all their individuality and with their choices, drive the "how." Sometimes it's far far away from how I would like things to go. But that's a whole other story :)

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