Lately, I am overwhelmed by other people’s secrets. I’m not even talking real people here. I’m talking characters. With each book I write, it seems like the secrets get more complicated, the webs more intricate and tangled. Which is a good thing. The problem is keeping track of all of them as I go along.
For my latest project, I’m trying something new and radical – I’m actually writing an outline. I am not an outline kind of writer. I’ve always been more of the get-an-idea-and-dive-headfirst-in-to-see-where-it-might-take-me school. I begin with a character and build a story around them. But this idea seemed too big and sprawling for that approach, and I’ve been persuaded to give outlining a whirl.
I’ve been struggling for a few weeks now. Things got easier when I started bringing my laptop to Espresso Bueno after dropping my daughter off at preschool. Lesson number one: Lattes help. Also, scones. And biscotti.
After I had a rough sketch of what I wanted to have happen to these poor hapless victims that are quickly becoming my characters, I went to index cards. For over a week now, I’ve been covering my living room floor with them. On each card is in an important scene. I’ve been shuffling them around, trying to get things to make sense. It’s a little like fortune telling with Tarot cards. Does Winnie come back in chapter four or ten? And when does the package arrive in Henry’s studio? And then I’ve got a character sneaking around in a blond wig – what’s she up to anyway?
Everyone has their secrets. And little by little, things are revealed. But it’s damned hard to keep track of who knows whose secrets, and when, and how — even with my impressive system of color-coded index cards and highlighters. At the Burlington Book Festival last month, I had a chance to hear some other writers talk about outlining. Some swear by it. Others (including one big name, bestselling writer) say it’s not for them and never will be – that if they know where they’re going, that takes all the fun out of it.
Me, I’m thinking that even when I sit down to write my book from this outline I’ve painstakingly constructed, the characters will still find ways to surprise me. The story itself has a few secrets I haven’t quite picked up on yet. So… my question to all you writerly folks: to outline or not to outline? Where do you weigh in? And if you do outline, does the book still have some secrets in store for you?