Every good novel begins with a plot outline. Doesn’t it?
Of course it does. I mean, how else are you going to get all your characters worked out and ironed out and written out just like they should be? Everyone knows that a good novel needs a good structure, good characterization, good plot line, good setting…and the only way to get that right is a good plot outline. Isn’t it?
So, always willing to learn new skills, Yours Truly set off to create The Plot Outline. I wasn’t going to write a word until I had it just so. I would be ordered, disciplined, super-duper-efficient and ever so creative. Two cups of hot chocolate, a coffee, three glasses of fruit juice, lunch, and (I think) four glasses of wine found me staring at a blank page. I’d filled it three times, honest. (What would we writers do without highlight delete – or, as my daughter would say when first learning computer skills: “quick unpick”. Yes, her mother did a lot of sewing back then.)
It was, I believe, one of the most desperate moments of my life. You are a writer. It’s a fact that you talk to characters while falling asleep and watch them while waking up. You live snatches of dialogue while waiting for the kettle to boil. You play the “what-if” game with imaginary people while chopping the veges, and listen intently while your cat offers amazingly perceptive insights into which of said characters is doing what and why…
And you can’t write an outline?
I poured another glass of wine (we grow some really good wines, here in South Africa) and pondered the ridiculousness of it all. I had it, there in my head – no, you cannot mistake a veritable multitude of characters tromping around in such a confined space. So what is the problem?
It took quite a while – along with a magnificent sunset, a cuddle with a distinctly smug and supercilious cat, and another glass of wine (this time with a snack – I thought it wise) to discover the obvious.
Plot Outline is not me.
When I say my characters tromp, it means they tromp. Noisily. They do not gracefully surrender to predetermined plot lines. Nor do they suffer being relegated to types or stereotypes or even roles. They live, love, hate, cry, laugh, make mistakes and, ultimately, they act, react, and evolve. They reveal themselves bit by bit, and sometimes, they surprise me. Actually, come to think of it they’re a lot like me…
Moving past the plot outline…
It occurred to me that I hate (to the point of “never!”) work uniforms. I wear what I want, when I want, how I want, and no one is ever going to squash me into something I wouldn’t ordinarily be seen dead in. (Yes, this post is about writing in general, and outlines in particular.) But, I do check the weather every day. No point in freezing my butt off just because I can. It’s about what’s appropriate to the setting. Hmmm. Interesting thought. So maybe the outline is not appropriate to the setting? Or the characters? Maybe not to the story itself?
Maybe I am someone who cannot outline what I have not “lived”. Does that make me a “bad writer?” I’m not sure. All I know is that writing an outline made me no writer at all. So I decided to put it to the test. Delete file. Open new document. Chapter 1. 10 989 words (and no wine) later I was happy as can be. My cat had taken herself off to the electric blanket (no anxious hovering), my characters were yelling for attention, and my plot was weaving itself most enthusiastically. The defence rests, Your Honour.
So, for those of us weird writer types who find the muse going off on an outline-induced vacation when we think we need them most, take comfort. There are those who outline to great success, and there are those who don’t. If you are one of the don’ts, do yourself a favour and try it. Just once. Just to be sure. You never know, you may actually find it works for you. If it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up over it. There is nothing in The Great Big Rule Book of the Writer Universe that says you have to Write By Plot Outline. Live the story. Feel the story. Take that one little string of words and let your imagination loose…
The boy huddled miserably in the bolthole he’d found behind the oldest tomb, where the rough stone of the wall had crumbled enough for him to wedge himself into the hollow. It was a small space, and damp besides. This deep into the sepulchre, few people bothered to check the walls of the old structure. In truth, few people ever ventured this far, for the burial place of Asalaine’s kings was a dank and gloomy place and most likely haunted by the royal spectres of those who were no more.
He’d come the first time looking for those ghosts. He had hoped that perhaps they could instil in him the things he so obviously lacked. Courage, for one. He had crept into the sacred place like a trembling rabbit, starting at every imagined sound, expecting that any moment one or other of his valiant ancestors would emerge from the darkness.
But they hadn’t, and after waiting forever he’d given himself up to curiosity and the secret pleasure of being alone and safe in the darkness where nobody came.
Until today. At first, the boy had thought that the dead had indeed risen to chastise him, and he had stood, frozen in fear, while his eyes searched the shadows. Then he’d realised that the voices were known. And hated. And feared more than the dead. That was when he’d tried to flee, but they were within and all he could do was burrow into his hidey-hole and pray.
The muse is happy. The cat is happy. And, most of all, the writer is exceedingly happy. Oh Joy! Adventure beckons.
Plot Outline be damned… this is ME!