Are Outlines…Out of Line?

Do you outline before you write stories?  If you’re not a fiction writer, do you outline in preparation for any substantial non-fiction you write?  I do, but this won’t be an attempt to persuade you to outline, but rather a description of why and how I do it.  Perhaps you’ll benefit from knowing such things.

I’m sure many writers don’t use outlines.  Too much of a bother, they’d say.  Too confining, others believe.  Still others would profess that time spent outlining is time not spent writing.  For some, their outline is in their head, and that’s enough.

More power to them.  I can’t imagine writing without an outline.  For me, it’s not a bother, but rather a way to ensure my story stays on track, stays true to its intended purpose.  I suppose outlines can be confining, but I think if them as flexible guidelines, every bit as subject to editing and rewriting as the story itself.  I rarely adhere entirely to my outline anyway.  It’s true—the process of outlining takes time that could be spent writing.  However, the time I spend outlining is worth far more to me than time wasted writing a story that lacks direction or purposeful flow.  As for keeping an outline in my head, I’m too afraid I’ll forget something important.

How do I outline, you ask?  I always start with a mind map.  If only my teachers had covered mind maps in elementary school!  Instead, I first heard about them in my thirties.  What a marvelous note-taking and brain-storming method!  I recommend reading Use Both Sides of Your Brain, by Tony Buzan, but you can also learn about the technique through internet searches.  I use mind maps initially to form ideas for my story, letting my mind free-stream, and organizing my thoughts on the mind map.  Later I might refine or redraw the mind map as things clarify.

More often I use the mind map to create a document called “Notes for ___” where the blank is either the title of the story, or the initial idea for the story.  This Notes document will eventually contain the research I’ve done, as well as the outline fleshed out from the mind map.

That outline basically consists of: (1) a list of the characters, along with character traits and motivations, (2) a description of the setting, along with any research I’ve done about the setting, (3) some notes about the conflict(s) to be resolved (both external and internal), and (4) the listed series of events making up the plot.

I know—seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  But I write short stories, so my lists of characters are short, the settings and conflicts are few, and the plots are not too involved.  As important as outlines are for my short stories, I imagine they’ll be even more necessary when I take the leap into writing novels.  For me, there’s little danger of getting snared in the trap of forever planning the story and never writing it.  Every moment I’m outlining, my bored muse is screaming at me to stop that tedious business and get writing!

As I write the story, I keep the Notes at the ready and refer to them often.  In almost every case, I reach a point where the story wants to deviate from the outline.  This can occur when a minor character starts taking center stage more than intended, or when my outlined plot requires a character to do something he or she just would not do, or many other reasons.  Here I must decide whether to detour from the outline or edit the story to match the existing outline.  Most often I abandon the outline, but I’ve done both.

My process has evolved to this and will likely continue to change.  Perhaps the next time I address outlining in a blog, my method will have altered again.  The process you choose will be different and uniquely you; it may not involve outlines at all.  It’s my hope you enjoy your writing adventure as much as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Getting Words Down

When I began my writing hobby, I wondered about the mechanics of how real authors worked.  I figured real authors (famous ones, for whom writing was their day job) just sat at their keyboards producing electronic reams of high-quality prose, stealing glances out the window across the acreage of their vast estates.  Or maybe some of them lounged by the side of their Olympic pool with a voice recorder in hand, speaking the words that one of their staff would later type up in a manuscript.  Perhaps some of the older, less techno-savvy of these authors still used their favorite typewriter (remember those?), or wrote on paper with a diamond-studded fountain pen.  Again, the task of typing all those magical, money-making lines into a word processor would fall to a minion.

The daily routine of a real author, I imagined, would go something like this.  Noon: wake up.  Afternoon:  Do something to get in the writing mood, such as scuba diving, skiing, hunting bear, skydiving, or piloting your private jet to some city for lunch or dinner with famous editor or agent.  After dinner:  intimate party with one hundred celebrity friends.  Midnight:  write until four a.m.  Sleep.  Repeat every day.

Such imaginings did my psyche no good at all.  Inevitably I would compare my own situation to that of my fantasy author and find that I fell somewhat short.  I lacked not only the vast estate and Olympic pool, but even the diamond-studded pen and private jet.  Most of all, I lacked the long stretches of time available to famous writers.

Somehow I would have to make due with a computer located in a small downstairs den, a plastic ballpoint pen, and the short, irregular snatches of time I could steal from my day job and family obligations.

How should I make best use of these scanty resources?  Should I carve out an hour of each day and declare it my writing hour?  Sit down at the computer and do nothing else but write during that time?  Such a strategy would have the advantage of forming a habit, establishing a mental boundary that would keep other activities out and ensure a fixed routine.  The act of sitting down every day to write at the same time, in the same setting, would ensure a steady flow of output.

That approach might work for some, and how I wish it worked for me.  But my muse would have none of it.  I’d sit down at the beginning of my writing hour and think, “Now, be creative.”  But nothing happened.  Apparently my carefully arranged writing hour was inconvenient for my muse, damn her.  So a wasted sixty minutes ensued in which a few words got typed, the delete and backspace keys saw much action, and nothing of consequence resulted.  In frustration I retired for bed, first taking my customary nighttime shower.  Don’t you know—it was then the stupid muse decided to visit, with me naked and soaking wet, without a computer in sight.

In time, I came to realize that writing—for me—would mean adapting my schedule to that of my muse.  I’d have to be ready for her appearance at any time of day.  I formed the habit of carrying a writing pad in my briefcase to and from work or when going on errands.  I put a voice recorder in the car, and another writing pad on the nightstand.  Yes, it means extra work since I write by hand first, then type the same words into my computer’s word processor.  But I find the typing process serves as a first edit along the way to a finished draft.

As a story progresses, I hand-write several pages, then type them up and print them out.  By stapling blank pages to the back, I can then use my (and my muse’s) available time to edit what I’ve done before and add to it.  Then type and print some more, etc. and edit the result until the story’s done.  It may seem cumbersome, but it works for me.

Those last four words are the main point.  If a writer you would be, then you’ll have to work out the mechanics of the process for yourself.  I wish you luck, says–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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A Stroll through My Mental Library

Why would you read a blog post containing a list of writers who influenced me?  My aim is to provoke you to think about (perhaps even write down) the list of those who inspired you.  It’s a useful exercise.  Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to describe those writers as well—what they mean to you.

Come on, walk along beside me now through the library of my mind.  The shelves have all the books I ever read.  My apologies for its small size; a busy life interferes with reading, unfortunately.  But I’m trying to read more.  For the purposes of today’s tour the books have been arranged by author, and we’ll be viewing busts of the more prominent ones.  Engraved on the pedestal of each bust are the author’s name and a few words describing his or her works.

Ah, I see you noticed the 30-foot high bronze statue just within the entrance.  Kind of hard to miss.  Yes, that’s Jules Verne.  I’ve read most of his works that have been translated into English.  His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the only book I ever re-read, and I do that every couple of years.  That book inspired me both to join the submarine service and to major in naval architecture in college.  To me, he represents scientific accuracy, exotic voyages, high drama and adventure, and a glimpse of a time when technology seemed on the verge of making everything possible for the first time in human history.

Over here is the bust of Isaac Asimov.  I’ve read only a fraction of his published work but it’s still a lot, both fiction and non-fiction.  The words engraved beneath his name are scientific accuracy, easy-to-read writing style, clever ideas, and love of wordplay.

Walking along, we’ve come to Arthur C. Clarke.  To me, he too symbolizes scientific accuracy, but also an optimistic view of mankind’s future, and various ways we could deal with aliens of far greater and different intelligences.

That bust there depicts Robert Heinlein.  Hard-edged style, a strict morality, a libertarian viewpoint, and success through struggle are the hallmarks of his writing, to me.

Watch your step; this area is not well lit.  Here, take my flashlight.  That bust you just bumped into is Ray Bradbury.  He has the most poetic prose of any author here—a flowing style that seduces you into his stories with the sheer magic and power of the words.  Then he often slaps you hard with some dark and twisted surprise.

And that one over there is Ayn Rand.  She’s the only woman on the tour; I wish there were more.  Her writing is characterized by emotional power, uncompromising philosophy, and a deep belief in human freedom coupled with strict ideas about how to live one’s life.

We’ve come to the bust of Larry Niven.  Amazing ideas, compelling characters, and the most well-thought-out aliens of any author in the library.

Here we are in the Children’s section—quite dusty, I know.  This next bust looks a little strange, with no discernable features.   Maybe you don’t recognize the name, Victor Appleton II. It’s a pseudonym used by many authors.  I grew up reading the Tom Swift, Jr. series written by the various “Mr. Appletons.”  With fondness I recall the high adventure, the marvelous inventions, and the use of science to solve problems.

One more and I think we’ll wrap up the tour.  Clive Cussler’s bust bears the following descriptions on beneath the name on its pedestal—engaging adventures set at sea, a writer with an easy-reading style that really puts his characters through hell.

That’s enough for this trip.  Perhaps we’ll continue the tour in a future blog post and examine busts of authors we missed.  I should mention you won’t necessarily see the influences of all of these writers in my own stories.  Also, I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of all of them—I just enjoy reading their books.

Thanks for stopping by for a tour today.  Hope you enjoyed strolling through the mind of–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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How to Read

That title is a bit illogical; those who can’t read would not turn to a blog post to learn how.  By ‘how to read’ I mean something more along the lines of ‘how to appreciate what you read.’

Ever notice how familiarity brings an added dimension of appreciation?  Let me explain.  Those who have never played football or studied its finer points watch and appreciate a game at a different level of enjoyment than do those who have played it or otherwise understand its intricacies.  If you have played a musical instrument, you listen to music in a different manner from those who have not.

I’m suggesting the same is true of reading.  Here I’ll confine the discussion to short stories, my area of familiarity.  Those who haven’t written or studied fiction since school will appreciate short stories in a different way from those who know something about the craft.

Understand–I’m not disparaging either level of appreciation.  Unfortunately, our lifetimes are limited and you can’t become an expert in everything.  There’s nothing wrong with reading fiction for pure enjoyment without understanding its finer nuances.  In fact, writers selling to the mass market hope plenty of people do just that.

Even so, you might be a non-writer and still wonder about how writers read.  What things do they look for in a short story that non-writers may not be aware of?  Non-writers know stories involve characters, and there always seems to be a main character, about whom they come to care as the story progresses.  But writers look at the way characters are described and portrayed.  Is the description brief yet impactful?  Does the character have depth or is that protagonist stereotypical or one-dimensional?

Non-writers understand whether a story is written as if God were telling it (the story makes clear what is in the mind of several characters), or if it only enters one character’s thoughts.  Writers use the term ‘point of view’ and form judgments about whether the author selected the right POV for maximum effect.

As various events happen in stories, the non-writer reads along and forms opinions about them.  Afterward the non-writer might say she “liked the plot,” meaning it seemed logical and held her interest.  A writer examines the same story’s plotline looking for characters reactions to events, and whether each character’s actions spring from motivations aligned with the character’s established traits.

Most non-writers can spot the major conflict in a story, understand how the passage of time occurs (whether in a straight sequence or through the use of flashbacks or gaps), and can feel themselves to be ‘in’ a setting if it’s well-described.  Writers are alert for other aspects too, such as tone, symbolism, allusions, and themes.

In the end, both a non-writer and a writer will form an overall judgment about the story they’ve read.  Either one might say, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” though their overall assessment is based on integrating different things (and differing numbers of things) they noted as they read.  But is the writer’s assessment more correct than that of a non-writer?

No.  If every wine expert in the world considers a certain wine terrible, but you (a non-expert) like it, then go ahead–drink it and enjoy.  Everyone’s different and entitled to his own opinion.  Short stories are meant to be enjoyed by individuals, so judgments about quality can only be made by each person according to his own level of expertise.  It’s my fervent hope that you gain some enjoyment reading stories written by…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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