November is three 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!
Seven 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 making you do 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.
Three months later, I was housesitting for a month. I had nothing planned but write this novel, walk and feed their dog. I found my outline and 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.
Does this mean that outlines are perfect, the Holy Grail? No. Everyone is different; you must find your own way in writing. The advice I would give beginning writers 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.