Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bruce Cordell on Outlining

My co-worker and friend Bruce Cordell posted recently about his experience outlining the first novel of his new trilogy. It was neat for me to read another author's thoughts on a process we've all gone through, and to compare my own feelings about it.

Bruce said he's never been a fan of outlines, preferring to just write as he goes. My sense is only slightly different: I never even thought about outlining a novel until I was asked to submit one. I always assumed that when I did write a novel, I'd sit down and write from the beginning to the end, making it up as I went along. And over the years I made a couple of feeble stabs in the direction of a short story, writing as I went along, and each time sort of petered out, not knowing where the story was going. 

So when my editor for both Tales of the Last War and In the Claws of the Tiger asked for, first, a pitch (a pretty brief summary of the plot of the book) and then a chapter-by-chapter outline, I was taken aback. But I found myself able to write such outlines. And then, much to my surprise, I found that having an outline made it possible to write the story or the novel. I sat down every morning with my mocha valencia and knew what I had to try to write that morning, even if I didn't know exactly what words to put down. It turns out that is the hard, or at leas the time-consuming part. To sit down and know what the characters have to discuss, what they need to do, what needs to happen in the world around them, and to struggle to find the words to express all that can be pretty disheartening. Usually once the caffeine from that triple-shot coffee delicacy kicks in, the process gets easier.

Like Bruce, I enjoy both the structure an outline provides and the freedom to deviate from it. As I wrote this novel, I kept a file called "working outline," which I used to guide my day-by-day writing, but also marked up thoroughly, so that it remained a faithful outline of the plot of the novel even as I veered away from the original plan. There's at least one place where I wrote, "Wow, that chapter ended up very differently than I expected!" and then struck through all the rest of the text of the outline for that chapter and filled it in with something new. And when I got to the last couple of chapters, I threw the outline away completely. That working outline file also served as a handy place to make notes about things I wrote that I knew I wanted to pick up later on. It was a handy thing to have alongside my actual novel file (one big Word file, ending up at 1.8 MB!). 

I also kept a character file, with some basic information about each of the major characters in the novel. I had notes about D&D stats (I never statted these ones up completely), physical description, mannerisms, and favorite exclamations. For In the Claws of the Tiger I had a timeline file as well, where I tracked the action of the novel day by day. I started one of those for this novel but fell away from it... I'm sort of wondering if I should go back and fill it in to make sure I'm not making any weird mistakes about continuity. 

So there it is—a reaction to Bruce's comments, with some extra thoughts of my own about the writing process. Make of it what you will...

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