November is two months away, and I have started to think about my NaNoWriMo novel. I know the basic plot, and I'm seeing the characters in my head. Here is my challenge, however: Should I do an outline or not?
You see, I was never an Outline Girl. I always wrote and wrote and wrote and I never knew what was going to happen with my characters. Well I sort of knew, but not really. In my fiction, I had great beginnings and great endings. There's a problem, however: You need a great middle as well.
I always pooh-poohed people who did outlines. Outlines were not creative. Outlines were Very Serious. It reminded me of the beginning of Dead Poet's Society when one of the students started to read the introduction of how poetry should be read from a anthology. One of the more ambitious students did an algebra graph. Finally Robin Williams' Mr. Keating gets so frustrated he encouraged them to rip the intro from the book. Ignore the rules! Make up new rules!
I plugged along for a long time with the notion that outlines were not creative, not fun. Plot points also confused me. Plot points? What the heck? What about writing? Just the absolute joy in writing?
I was an Anti-Outline Girl for many years, until three years ago. I was taking a Writing for Children/Young Adult Novel workshop at Mills. Our teacher Kathryn Reiss announced that we would be writing five chapters of a children's/young adult novel. Okay, I can do this. I already started the novel, so this will be easy peasy. She then announced we had to do an outline.
I think Kathryn knew we were going to resist this. "You will all hate me for doing an outline," she told us. She told us a story: She agreed to write two mysteries for the American Girl line. She had to do an outline for each mystery. This was daunting, but she did it, and she found that not only did it make her focus on the characters and plot more, but she wrote faster as well. Soon she started to do outlines for all her books.
Both sides of my brain went haywire. My right side said, "No! No, no no! I don't wanna! You can't make me write a outline, Ms. Reiss!"
The left side said "Hey, Jennifer. Honey Girl? Let's me logical about this. Let's give it a try. That's why you're in college, right? To learn new things?"
My right brain was a bit surprised by this because my Left Brain is a bit slow. Still, I procrastinated on it until two nights before it was due. I hemmed and hawed for a while. Then I pulled up Imagination.
If you are a writer and don't have Imagination software, get it. It's fantastic. I used it with my students with disabilities when I was a tutor and it breaks things down very easily. What it does is this: You write down bit by bit what you want to do in your writing, what you want to accomplish, your goals, your plans. They have clip art to show what you mean, and then it breaks it down in an outline form.
I put on George Duke's Muir Woods Suite and I started working. At first, I wrote down what I knew about the characters. I knew the main character was named Ella, and she and her mother lived in a yellow house. The house was one I used to live near in Pleasant Hill. I knew the father died, but how? I knew there was an older brother, but he wasn't there and he was estranged from the mother. Why? Plus why wasn't the mother looking for work, even though she was laid off?
I started working on the outline. I found myself connecting the dots on what my characters' motivations. I came with middle, then an ending. An hour later, I had an outline. I felt like Lester Burnham in American Beauty when he raised his fist and said, "I rule!"
Three months later, I was housesitting for a month. I had nothing planned but write this novel, walk the dog, feed the dog and the cats. I found my outline, and then I started to write. Soon I was writing a chapter a day. By the end of the month, I had a messy but lovable draft done.
I became an Outline Girl. I was like Linus and the Great Pumpkin. Excuse me do you have a moment? I like to tell you about outlining your novel. No, don't run away from me! Outlining is fun! Trust me!
I know many authors don't outline. Meg Cabot once wrote in her blog that she didn't outline because she never knew what was going to happen to her characters. This amazed me because I just assumed Cabot outlined because she wrote six books a year. SIX BOOKS A YEAR. That amazes me.
I outlined two other novels that have sat on my hard drive-I'll go back soon to work on them. Last year I decided to try and not outline, just go with the flow with NanoWiMo.
It didn't go well at all. Part of was it was around when my cat Electra died, and I had sprained my jaw months before and I was still in pain. I didn't have a compass to the book. I didn't know the characters, I didn't know anything. I hope to go back to that book someday.
It taught me something though. It taught me that I was glad I had the recent experiences of doing an outline and not doing an outline. Right Brain is going to not like this, but I really appreciated the outline. I felt like I understood what was going to happen. I knew that each night, I had an assignment. I had to work on the next part of the outline and have it done. I did this until I finished.
Does this mean that outlines are perfect, the Holy Grail? No way, pal. In a mystery I'm working on I have my main character Hallie Kate. She has a nonverbal learning disorder (like me, what a coninky-dink!) I knew I had to make her different from me, but while working on the outline I wasn't sure how to make her different. I wrote three drafts when I realized I had to have distance from it otherwise it would be too hard to hear it commented on. Lefty Brain said: "You have to stick to the outline!" It then pounded a pointer on the desk for emphasis. Righty Brain said: "Why don't you just try and see if NLD'ers are good at any sports?"
I googled NLD, then sports. I came across a story about a young man who had NLD. A doctor suggested he get involved in a sport where he could do something in a straight motion without turning left or right in order to improve balance. His mother enrolled in the Y for the pool and the young boy did laps in the pool. Soon he was swimming so many laps he easily made his swim team, made friends, and excelled in the swimming arena in his town.
Suddenly it hit me: Hallie Kate was a swimmer! Of course she was! Because the pool wasn't ready at her house, she had to go to the Y, then she did this, and then there was a clue at the Y.... it started to make sense.
Now does this mean outlines are bad? No. Because of the outline, I knew Hallie Kate was going to have social issues. I knew it was going to be hard for her to fit in at times. I also knew she wasn't exactly like me, and that she would excel at something. It turned out to be swimming. The outline showed me the way to find out where she excelled.
The advice I would give writers who are just beginning writing is this:
If you don't do an outline, try it.
If you are devoted to outlines, try not doing it.
See what happens. Just keep your hands moving. Don't stop. Get to the part where you would say "The End" but you can't say the end because it's too clichéd. Decide for yourself. Remember this poem by Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing,
There is a field.
I'll meet you there.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries