Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stretching For The Limit

I've spoken before about what happens when I reach the end of my outline and try to keep going without structure.  However, I haven't often talked about the reverse - how far in advance should you outline?

When I get an idea for a novel, it starts out very nebulous.  My outline is a way of taking the molten version of that vision and banging it into a more recognizable form before I put it on paper.  I can be patient and find gaps in the story where I need more substance. However, I don't write my outlines in full detail the way Dom Capers used to take detailed notes before halftime of each game he was coaching.  What ends up on paper is more robust and doesn't always follow the outline to the letter.  Part of this is intentional - what fun would it be to know everything that going to happen prior to writing it down?  It allows me to run free with a stray idea that comes along and might fit.

Unfortunately, this also causes problems.  Since my writing can go off in a wildly different direction than the outline, I can waste a lot of valuable time if I outline too far ahead.  I could end up with pages and pages of material that no longer applies, to say nothing of confusing me for continued writing.  Therefore, I have to keep the outline and the writing in sync.

I have little problem visualizing and then writing down the path of a story, but if I see a story going in a different direction once it's on paper, then I follow it, outline be damned. And in an effort to be as efficient as possible, this dictates I cut off my own outline before it grows like the proverbial weed.

To non-writers, this sounds very elitist.  I'm such an "arteest" that I think the story can grow on its own.  I fully realize how arrogant that sounds, but those who've written novel length fiction know just how true it is.  No story comes out the same way twice in an author's head, so that outline and the story it spawned might be two very different tales if one gets too far in front of the other.

So, what to do?  The way I approach things is to outline out no more than 20,000 words in advance, and that's only if I absolutely know where I want to take a novel.  I usually don't go beyond about 10,000 words because I'm well aware that anything beyond that is meaningless - stray electrons will carry it in a direction away from the outline, and that direction will work far greater than what I originally envisioned.  However, I'll soon wind up at the end of the Idea Train, and little good will follow until I outline some more.

Do whatever you as a writer think is best for your story - this is what works for me. Some people can outline in minute detail every aspect of the book they want to write, while others can go from the seat of their pants the entire way(Stephen King is famous for this).  I need things in bite sized chunks so I don't choke.

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