26 May 2013

Dem Bones: No Tears Outlining

This is the second installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.

We've all heard that an outline is the first step in writing a story or anything at all lengthy.  I'm like you, though.  I hate outlining.  Let's face it: outlining a story is about as inspiring and feels about as creative as copying the first 100 pages of the phone book with a golf pencil.  The sheer drudgery of it can take the wind out of your sails before you've even begun to get creative.  Just the Roman numerals alone are enough to put me off outlines and just plunge right into the fun stuff: writing.

There's just one problem with this: you still have to outline.

Now my current project is helping to develop and edit Pete Oxley's Mister D series of steampunk stories.  They were written as an expression of creativity, and of course, he hoped to get some feedback and work from there.  Although he currently has two short stories on Wattpad, they are tied together by common characters, and were intended as the first two parts of a longer compilation with its own complex story arc.  Unfortunately, I felt the stories didn't quite fit together, and I couldn't get a feel for the larger story.

As part of our joint project, we were analyzing his story in some depth, and I asked him for a copy of his "story arc" notes, which he sent me.  This document was chock-a-block with some very intriguing concepts and possible plot points, but it still didn't quite hang together.  In short, he had a box of bones when what he really needed was a skeleton.

One of the most oft-repeated maxims in the scribbling biz is: "write down the bones," which can be misinterpreted a thousand ways.  For me, "writing down the bones" means writing my entire story out in Dick and Jane terms:

Opening scene: Augustus is dragging Maxwell through the snow

He hears noises behind him; he is being chased

Though he is not religious, he prays

... and so on

That's my outline.  No Roman numerals.  No tab stops.  No special writing software.  Just sequential lines of simple text that spell out all of the action so I can follow my story from beginning to end before I really get down to the business of writing.  It doesn't have to be terribly detailed, as long as all of the cause and effect and major occurrences are included.  With just this bony structure, logical leaps and continuity errors stick out like, well, a broken bone.  Once I've built a sound skeleton, I can flesh it out however I want.  I can copy and paste and rearrange at will without worrying about an outline hierarchy.  Simple, yes?

Here's the best part.  Once I have my skeleton, I can add bits and pieces right in that document.  If a snippet of dialogue comes to me, I scroll down and plop it roughly where it belongs.  If I find something relevant in my research, I paste the link right there in the document.  Sometimes, writing and research combine to create a new insight that utterly escaped me as I was building my skeleton, or sometimes I start writing at some point and find myself on wild tear, ignoring the outline and just letting 'er rip.  No problem.  I can always compare later to see if I need to make any adjustments, either to my new prose or to the outlined portion.  It really couldn't be simpler.

So that is what Pete is doing now: diligently arranging his bones into a proper skeleton.  Not an outline, you understand.  A skeleton.

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