Friday, February 23, 2007

On Novel Outlining

It’s funny how MFA programs don’t put much focus on novel writing. Sure, some time is spent on analyzing novels, but there is no real guidance on how to build or shape a novel. So, we walk out with a portfolio of short stories, some critical writing, and no lick of experience of doing what it is almost all of us are looking to do.

Last week I realized that I was nearing the half-way point in my “project.” I’d gone past the point of establishing characters, exploring their dilemmas, and now it was time to put them on the path to the eventual resolution. And I’d really been winging up to this point. I knew the characters, but I want them to sort things out on their own without having some unwieldy outline to which I was supposed to adhere. Yet, suddenly I was there, beginning a new chapter, and I realized I didn’t really know what I wanted to have happen, what needed to happen.

Novel outlining seems to be somewhat of a contentious issue. Authors seem to have all sorts of responses to the question of whether or not they outline. I think many want us to think that it’s all organic and that any sort of “planning” is not artistic and goes against the process. Sure, maybe people writing those plot-driven things need to outline, but I don’t. I don’t think I believe this.

I have several characters who all need to come together in the resolution, and if I don’t have an idea of what I need to have happen when I’m screwed. I’ll end up writing one of those novels where it seems the author didn’t quite know what he/she needed to have happen and the whole thing veers off in a new direction (see: Look At Me, Empire Falls-which I still liked).

Resources on outlining are a bit limited. I went out a-wandering on the internet in hopes of finding some direction, suggestion, guidance. If you’re writing sci-fi or romance there is some support out there, but no one really wants to talk about outlining a literary novel. Not one link worth passing on.

What I had to do was to outline the course of each character. On a separate piece of paper I noted the scenes and development for each character and then a few words on what I needed to have happen to them in the future, the different scenes I knew that I would need. Then I had to lie each of these together, looking at what was missing, and outline the course of action. So, now I have a rough list of scenes in the order I need to have them happen in order to get us to the conclusion. But is truly rough. A few words each. I still don’t want to tie the characters down and force them into anything, so I think I’ve left them a little room to move around on their own.

I now feel open to write away, knowing where the landmarks are, where each checkpoint is, what I vaguely want to accomplish in each chapter. I finally feel like I can move forward.

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