I started my writing career as a poet. I’m sure there are poets who spend a lot of time planning and shaping their work, but for me, each poem began as a tug at my subconscious, a blur at the edge of my vision, a half-remembered phrase under an early autumn moon. Over time – an hour, maybe, or a few days – the tug would turn itself into a first line and I’d sit down and write the first draft, which could take anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours, but not much more. Two or three drafts later, I would type it up, paste it into my journal, and move on with my life.
The process was fast. I found if I spent too much time muddling over an image, I’d lose the spark of inspiration that had ignited my imagination in the first place, and the poem would become stale. It was better not to think too hard about any one poem, but keep moving forward, hoping the next one would come out exactly as I meant.
After ten years of writing poems, I turned my hand to fiction, only to discover that my method didn’t translate. As it turns out, you can’t just wait for the inspiration to hit you and get the whole draft down in an hour. Also, apparently you can’t just dive in and hope the whole thing will work out in the end. (Well, I’ve heard some people can do just that, but for me? I got 300 pages into my first novel when I realized I’d need at least another 300 to finish the thing… it was ugly.)
Years of writing poetry had given me facility with language, the ability to translate moments into sentences, and strength of detail and description. But plot? Not so much.
And then I discovered outlining.
I outlined my first novel twice: once before I started writing it, and again after I’d sold it, when I was waist-deep in revisions and no longer had any perspective on what the stupid thing was even about. The first outline was fairly simple; just a chapter-by-chapter summary of what would happen in the book, which made actually writing the thing pretty easy. I just had to consult my outline! What happens in chapter 10? Oh, they go to the abandoned amusement park and meet Old Man Withers? Easy!
My second outline was slightly more complicated, and also much prettier. I wrote every single scene in the entire book down on its own index card, including a color-coded list of characters in each scene. Then I taped all the cards (close to 100) on my kitchen cabinets, which are nice and white and right across from my favorite writing spot at the kitchen table. (My wife, by the way, did not find this method nearly as awesome as I did. I can’t imagine why. Who wouldn’t want to stare at a scene breakdown everytime you go for a bowl of cereal?)
The color-coding method worked well. It allowed me to see the entire book at once, something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I could track the movement of each of my characters through the book, and see that the first time all the characters were in the same room together was right around the climax. I could also see the repetitive parts, where the same characters had back-to-back scenes.
When I finally took down my kitchen outline, a few weeks after I’d sent my manuscript in to my editor, my kitchen looked very sad and empty. (My editor suggested I outline my next book in the bathroom, to constrain the complexity of plotting and to give guests much needed reading material. What else are bath crayons for?)
If you’re thinking about tackling a huge project, whether it be a novel, memoir, novella, or even a long story, but you’re intimidated by the length and complexity of the story in your head, get out the index cards and markers and give outlining a try! Your kitchen cabinets will thank you.
M. Molly Backes
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