Friday, August 16, 2013

Yet Another Good Thing About Outlines

 by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

As you know, I’ve been a very reluctant convert to outlining.  I look for ways in which outlining doesn’t work for me.
Instead, I keep coming across proof that it does. Sigh. (Here and here.)
I have an outline due for an editor by September 1.  Chapter one of that book is due on the same date.  I worked a bit on the outline while I was traveling those two weeks in July.  Then, the last week of July, I worked harder on it and finished it.
August 1, I started writing chapter one of the book…and stalled out.  I continued writing, but I realized that chapter one wasn’t right. The tone and the mood were all off. I was reluctant to even open up the document every day to work on it. 
Finally, it occurred to me (I can be completely task-oriented and unwilling to look for root causes of problems) that I should go back to the outline and see if I could figure out why that first chapter was going so poorly.
After reading through the outline, the answer was obvious to me. This wasn’t a cozy mystery at all. It was a mystery—it had a couple of murders and a sleuth who solved the case by piecing together clues after interviewing suspects and chasing red herrings.
But it was way too dark.  The victim had been a ruthless person. The victims of the victim—now suspects—had seriously been taken advantage of.  One of the suspects was a recurring character in the series and the sleuth was involved in a very unusual and disturbing way.
This outline could be for a police procedural or maybe even a private eye.  Heck, it could even be made into a noir.  But it wasn’t a cozy mystery.  And it had absolutely no mention of quilting in there, for heaven’s sake, which was the series hook.  The outline also didn’t include the books’ recurring characters …characters that I knew were popular with readers of the series.
The day before this post came out about the importance of knowing our audience was the day when I realized I needed to take the outline back to the drawing board.
I was able to adjust the outline to make it more appropriate to my genre. I changed the suspects, I changed the victim’s personality a bit to make him more of a rogue with an edge, I eliminated the reason my sleuth was involved, I changed the motives. I lightened it up. Then I scrapped my chapter one.
I’ve had to make similar changes before with manuscripts, but it’s a lot more time-consuming when you’re making the changes on a finished draft.  I used the basic plot premise that was in the original outline and was able to make the changes to the outline in three days.  Chapter one was quickly written after that.
So—the outline can be a litmus test. You can see from your outline if the story you’re planning will work…for your genre, for your protagonist, for your readers. You can see plot holes, you can see where there might be an issue with tone, you can see where readers might have to suspend their disbelief too frequently.  An outline can be a useful tool.  (Bleh.)
I still don’t enjoy making them, but they are becoming more useful to me.
How is your writing process going for you? Made any tweaks with it lately to make it work better?