Good morning! Before we get to Mini-Lesson Monday, we have some winners to announce for our EYE OF THE STORM giveaway. Drum roll, please…
…Cindy Hundley, Carol Ann Osler, Lisa Rosenman, Stacy Dillon, and Catherine Flynn! Please email me (kmessner at kate messner dot com) with your name & mailing address, and Walker/Bloomsbury will send out your books. If you didn’t win (sorry!) but want to purchase EYE OF THE STORM, you can click here to order from your local independent bookstore.
In addition to our Monday Mini-Lesson, remember that author Jo Knowles offers a Monday Morning Warm-up on her blog to start each week, so be sure to visit her if you’d like another idea for free writing today.
Now for today’s topic…
Outlining: When, Why, & How…
…with guest author Sally Wilkins. Sally is a New Hampshire author and research lover who has written both nonfiction and early readers. Check out her books here.
We’ve probably also all heard that writers should create outlines for their work – even for their fiction! We know that we’re supposed to be able to state the theme and summarize the plot of our books in a single sentence. We’ve heard expressions such as “If you don’t have a map, you won’t know whether you’re headed toward your destination” or “without a recipe, you’re just throwing in the ingredients and hoping something edible emerges.”
And most of us have probably felt the paralysis of trying to codify our freedom-loving creativity into that oh-so-structured outline format, and wondered, simultaneously, both “How?” and “Why?”
Some authors swear by their outlines, many others will flatly state that they don’t outline. By which they generally mean that they don’t do a Roman/Uppercase/Arabic outline of their book or article before they start writing. Scratch the surface of that declaration, and you’ll almost certainly discover some other way of planning and organizing their material – something that doesn’t look or feel like an outline, but works like one.
A writer’s outline may take the form of a calendar or a timeline. It may resemble a flowchart or, indeed, a road map (or a set of directions printed out from the internet). For a picture book, the storyboard is a very common form of outline. Most important, a writer’s outline is not a static document, created before the writer begins to write and followed, point by point until the end. A writer’s outline is a dynamic tool. In the end, the finished work will have internalized the structure of the outline, so that a student told to make an outline of the book (especially if it is non-fiction) will be able to do just that, distilling the contents into that old familiar format. But that’s the finished product!
So let’s go back to the beginning and see how the writer’s outline works.
Every piece begins with an idea. The idea may be a theme or a topic (assigned pieces often begin this way). It may be a character, an event or a landscape the writer wants to explore. The very first outlining that the writer does looks a lot like jotting down notes: capturing random thoughts as they occur, adding bits and pieces of information she already knows and reminders of pieces she’ll need to research or discover. The bits may include names and descriptions of characters, snatches of dialog, one-sentence summaries of important information (with references, we hope), even photographs torn from magazines. Sometimes this jotting is an intentional, structured effort (as it will be in a classroom). Often it happens over time, frequently while the writer is working on other things, resulting in a file folder full of notes scrawled on the backs of old drafts, assorted pieces of notebook paper and stationary, and yes, envelopes and napkins. When the writer is ready to begin the project, these random bits get grouped together – maybe by character, maybe in chronological order, maybe as stops along a journey. Although the groups may not be labeled with Roman numerals, they are, in fact, the headings of an outline. In a classroom setting, you could ask students to create that outline from the groups and bits and pieces of information – but you would need to make it clear that this is not a finished product, because it is very likely that there will be A’s without B’s and all kinds of other missing parts to these outlines. Give yourself that same instruction – this is a work-in-progress tool. Leave lots of blank space in each section, so you can include new material as it comes along.
This early outline not only helps you think about the structure of your writing, but highlights the places where the material is unbalanced. In a non-fiction piece, this will point out places where you need more research. In fiction, you’ll see gaps in your narrative, characters that need developing, plot breaks where you need to construct a transition. (An important observation for those who write picture books and short form pieces – the outline may in fact be longer than your manuscript!)
Timeline for a biography that was shorter than its outline!
This is the point where the “I never outline” and the “I must outline” writers generally diverge. You may choose to fill in those gaps right then, so that when you begin to write you do in fact know every episode in your plot or every concept in your article. Or you may trust the outline to remind you that you need to go back to them later, and begin writing with only that bare skeleton of an “outline” as a guide. (Many writers don’t look at it again until they complete the first draft.)
As you continue to accumulate material you’ll create another kind of outline (or your original skeleton will morph into one). Building the structure of the “chapter” outline goes along with the process of mapping your work in your mind. Will it move chronologically, geographically, or thematically? How will you transition from one section or chapter to the next? For this outline your headings may be possible opening sentences, bullets or titles. Under each heading you’ll note the scene, the characters, and the action you’ll be describing there. You’ll note what information you’ll be including, and may decide some things need to be introduced earlier or held until later to improve the flow or balance of the work. When you actually begin to write, you may find yourself writing the middle of the piece first, then the scene leading to the climax, circling around to fill in the blank places later. An outline allows you to do this: you don’t have to write the book or article in the order that your reader will read it.
Your outlining will continue as you begin to write – the outline and the manuscript will interact, each illuminating the other.
Always, the outline remains a tool, not a dictator. As you write, the work may turn in unexpected directions. New characters may show up and demand a part. A question from a critique group member may make you rethink your underlying assumptions. Write on! You can always go back and adjust the outline. Move the pieces around. Combine some, expand others, prune and remove parts that don’t work. Contrary to the oh-so-neat finished product, outlining is a messy business. (Some writers like to put each section on an index card or post-it note, so they can move them around more easily.)
When you have finished the first draft, do another outline – this one from the text. This outline will become a useful tool in your revisions, highlighting problem areas and enabling you to see the overall structure of your work. You can look more dispassionately at the outline/summary of each chapter and say “is there enough action here?” and “does this move the plot?” than you can when you’re reading the words you’ve lovingly set down on paper. With each successive draft, the outline will become tighter and cleaner. Eventually you will be able to label it “Chapter synopsis” and include it in your book proposal!
Assignment for this week:
If your project is at the idea stage, do a brain-dump, jotting down all the random bits and pieces. Begin to sort them into logical groups. Create a rough outline (or timeline, or map, or flow chart) from these groups.
If you already have a work in progress draft, create an outline from the text. Look for gaps and bulges in the outline. Think about (and jot down) how you can smooth and balance those problem areas in the next draft.
And a note from Kate…
If you don’t have one major project for the summer but you want to practice outlining and see how it all works, try creating an outline of one of your favorite books. When I was writing EYE OF THE STORM, I really wanted to make it fast-paced for kids who love action. Before I started writing my thriller, I sat down and studied the pacing in a book I admired for its pacing, THE HUNGER GAMES. I made a chapter-by-chapter outline and learned a lot about why we can’t put that book down. It’s a fun exercise!
And remember…outlines take all kinds of forms. Here’s another example from Sally, with story elements on a calendar.
And here’s a blog post I did on outlining/planning a while back called, “Real Authors Don’t Plan…Or do they? An open letter to Tyler.” It shows all the different kinds of planning & outlining I did for my upcoming mystery, CAPTURE THE FLAG.
Outlines are kind of tricky to share in comments, but feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments for this post, or stop back and let us know how it goes!