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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #2: Know where you're going

Whenever I speak at schools, somebody always asks me if I outline.  I always say yes.  I always get the sense that the teacher wants to give me a big sloppy kiss. 

I probably disappoint those teachers when I go on to say that my outlines are for my eyes only.  Therefore, they display no Roman numerals or letters or fancy formatting.  Essentially, I just sit down and tell myself a story, divided up roughly into chapters.  Chapter 1 may say nothing except, "Faye finds a skull," because that may be all I need to call up the windswept and lonely island where that happens.  I may be absolutely certain that I know how to describe the nearby windswept island where the killer stands, looking at the light on her boat and knowing that someone has found his handiwork and he now has to do something about it.

The outlines for other chapters may be ridiculously lengthy.  I may have research notes I know I'll need, so I stick 'em right in the outline.  I always know when it's nearly time to start writing when I start hearing Faye and Joe talking to each other in my head.  (No, I'm not schizophrenic.  If I thought they were real people, I might be schizophrenic, but I am quite aware that they are my well-loved imaginary friends.)  Sometimes, I put snippets of those conversations into my outline, so that I'll remember where they go.

I have very successful author friends who tell me that they do not outline and, in fact, do not know how the book they're writing will end.  They write mysteries, for goodness sake.  How can they possibly lay clues when they don't know where the clues point?  Yet they do it, and they do it well.  I know that they are all brutal and efficient editors, and I do not know any published authors who are not, so they do have the option of tweaking the narrative and adding clues on the second draft.  Still, this approach leaves me white-knuckled and terrified.

For Artifacts, I wasn't even sure I could write a full-length book.  I crammed so many notes and descriptions and conversations and reminders and clues into that outline that it was 125 pages long.  In retrospect, you could almost call it a very ugly first draft. The outline for Relics was about 50 pages long.  All the rest have been about 25 pages, and I think that's a good level of detail for me and for the books I write.

I am just barely old enough to have typed on a typewriter in high school and college, but I ditched my typewriter for a TRS-80 Model 4 in 1984, and I have never looked back.  The notion of typing multiple drafts, and doing it without the capacity to correct errors, absolutely terrifies me.  I won the typing award in high school, which wasn't hard to do since I've been playing piano since I was 8.  My eye-finger coordination is amazing.  I probably type 80+ error-riddled words per minute these days.  On a computer, I can fix those errors in an instant. 

Also, and more to the point of this essay, a computer lets me type the final period on my outline, then scroll to the top and write my book in the same computer file.  Oh joy! 

I often take an important sentence out of the outline, cut it, paste it to the chapter where I'm writing, then I have it right in front of my eyes as a beacon, telling me where to go.  Remember those snippets of conversation?  I paste them where they need to go, then move on.

I once sent the first hundred pages of a new novel to my agent for review, and forgot to snip out the outline from the bottom of the file.  She called me and said, "For a second, I thought, 'What in the hell is this????", then I figured it out.

Other than that one time, I don't think anyone has ever seen one of my rough outlines, and no, I'm not pasting one here.  But now you know they exist.

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