Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fiction Outlines

My last blog article detailed the categories into which I’ve broken down my own three-ring-binder writer’s notebook. It finished with thoughts about a tab I call “SEQUEL NOTES” but what happens when a sequel graduates to a WIP?

Jan recently asked the following questions: “Just curious . . . I realize some writers never use outlines, but I’m trying to get various viewpoints on them to make some decisions . . . So, if you use an outline, what format do you use? Basic Roman numerals? Topical? Do you outline chapter by chapter? Outline the entire book before you write? Outline a chapter, then write it? Outlining was recommended to me, and as a former English teacher, I definitely see the benefit. BUT when I tried it for my novel, I found I ended up changing stuff as I got more involved with my character’s lives . . . Just looking for other opinions, I guess. Thanks, Jan”

This is like a painter asking if it’s better to use watercolors, acrylics, or oils. In the arts there is no shortest route between two points, and each artist will develop their own techniques. There are writers who can only work from a strict outline and others whose creativity would be stifled by this technique. While I myself lean more toward the latter variety, my WIP has proven to be a real organizational challenge, teaching me lessons from which any writer might benefit.

To preface Jan’s questions, I first need to define the braided novel. While writing Flashpoint, my own comfortable method of thought-organization worked very seat-of-the-pants-informally-functional. That story is very linear and straightforward. But that was then and this is now.

I’m writing its sequel in a form of which I first discovered while reading Michael Stackpole’s afterword from his novel Wolf and Raven. An anthology, as we all know, is a collection of short fiction. A braided novel is different in that it’s a series of shorts revolving around the same main characters and occur chronologically with each story building on the history of its predecessor. The functional beauty of a braided novel is that each freestanding short can be individually marketed before completing and compiling the stories into a single work. I fell in love with Wolf and Raven because it’s told in the same first-person sarcasm as Flashpoint, but I fell in love with Stackpole’s braided novel form because of its pragmatism.

For a mentally handicapped closed-head-injury victim like myself, keeping story threads alive and organized throughout seven (planned), shorts of a braided novel called for a level of outline complexity that I’d never before required. Because my writer’s notebook is of ye olde fashioned pencil and paper variety, Roman numerals are too rigidly unforgiving: while my characters and setting are fairly concrete, I’m a firm believer in letting a story tell itself. This means I have too many new ideas as I write, and my plot development must remain very fluid.

Flashpoint’s jagged notes scribbled scene by scene. I added chapter breaks later, always at action’s peak in order to create a page-turner effect. But, because a braided novel’s shorts are told in parts (Part One, Part Two . . .), this technique cannot be employed.

To sustain this form where each tale had to be supported by its former layer, work had to progress methodically. Before entering into any word-count writing, I motored up the olde speculative binder. I first chose the themes that I wished to include, followed closely by which plot-vehicles I’d use to deliver them. Using one loose-leaf notebook page for each story, I gleaned details from my notes on scene ideas, concepts and snappy lines then fleshed out the first details. I gave each short a working title, and listed them in a table of contents, for a quick organizational overview reference and major notations.

With this framework in place, it came time to plug-in the threads that I wanted to chronologically develop throughout the stories. Because this is a sequel, a solid cast of characters already existed, and over the years I’d worked up a few new character profiles. This is where I got to cheat a bit, because I already had ideas on how to develop characters with whom I was intimate. In my humble opinion, the most important element of any tale is its characters. They are the beginning point. You can have the best plot ever, but if your characters fall flat, I’m shelving the story. Conversely, if I care about strong characters in an ugly plot, I’ll keep turning pages. My five threads all dealt with character/ relationship development (a real shocker, I know). For easy reference, I listed a thread index on a separate sheet, and assigned each thread a capital letter. On those seven story pages I tracked each thread with its corresponding letter in the left margin.

In the end, every writer’s approach to the art is different. Whatever is right for you is a mantra that fails morally, but preferences are a freedom that we’re all allowed. Each artist must choose the medium and tools that their gift requires. As I’ve said before, every writer’s bag of tricks is of unique cloth but when each of us dumps it out, our work must have detail and depth.

“Trifles go to make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”–Michelangelo Buonarroti

To God be the glory,
Scott “Frank Creed” Morris
e-mail: frankcreed@insightbb.com
Home: http://www.frankcreed.com
Blog: http://frankcreed.blogspot.com

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