Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’
I thought it was worth a post.
Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.
You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.
Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all. Au contraire.
I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.
- Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
- As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
- As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
- You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.
All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.
So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.
If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .
Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.
But why bother with an outline?
You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.
But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.
Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements. There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.
Your outline, your way
We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.
Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.
Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that
Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
You might remember an exciting post here in the last days of 2017 – the Triskele Big Five mentoring competition. Triskele is a publishing house owned by five authors (various posts about them here) – and in the months since that announcement they have been hunting for an unpublished manuscript to mentor. Once they’d gathered their entries and whittled them down to a shortlist, it was my job to choose the final winner.
I wrote in my original post that I anticipated a few challenges and lessons from the task – and I wasn’t wrong. Especially when I found the finalists were a widely varied collection of styles, genres and approaches. How to judge them?
Well, reader, I found a way – and it was all rather interesting. Pictured here is the winner, Philippa Scannell. Hop over to the Triskele blog for all the details … including my attempts to determine the winning formula.
You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.
Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.
A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.
I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.
Research – complicated but not really
I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.
Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.
Fiction for research – getting more complicated
Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.
Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.
Interlude, where I don my editor hat
Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.
This is not complicated.
Reading while editing – really quite complicated now
With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.
I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.
I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.
Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.
Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.
It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.
Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?
PS You can find Nail Your Novel here
Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?
A few weeks ago I posted about exercise and my ineptitude at school sports. In the far warrens of the internet, somebody at my old school pricked up her ears and wrote me an email.
We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’
What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?
Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.
So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.
First, follow your interest.
In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.
The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.
After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Three and Not Quite Lost).
My second tip is this: make your own rules.
In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.
All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.
So, to pursue an artistic life:
- Follow your interest.
- Discover your own rules.
- Definitely stare out of the window.
- Don’t worry about the sport.
But perhaps pay a bit more attention in maths.
Tell me your thoughts. What would your school-age self like to have known about making a creative life? What advice would you give?
How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?
We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.
Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.
The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.
We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.
Tip 3: Suit the occasion
Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.
For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.
I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman
It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.
More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.
All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Find books you want to savour
I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.
Tip 5: Try many styles
A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.
Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.
Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.
Here it is in a nutshell:
1 Strive to be understood
2 Develop an ear
3 Suit the occasion
4 Find books you want to savour
5 Try many styles
Or: to avoid this
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me
Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.
Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?