In Defence of Outlines

I’ve met so many writers who don’t outline. They say, “If I knew what was going to happen, I wouldn’t care enough to write the story.”

Those words always make me feel odd and out of place, for I am not that way.

I outline. My outlines are twenty pages long. Even before I outline, I play out a story in my head thoroughly, repeatedly, until I have a hold on it. I’d say, in fact, that if I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t care enough to write the story.

I used to draft without an outline, with just a premise or a character or a moment. I’d run with it, typing as I went, seeing where it took me. That worked well with short stories but not at all with novels. My longer works started out well, then wandered aimlessly for several hundred pages while I kept at it, hoping the road would eventually clear.

I don’t do that anymore. I still come up with stories that peter out, but they fail in the imagining-it-in-my-head stage. I’ll waste a few days that way, but I don’t waste months of drafting. It’s so much easier to let those failed stories go because the investment is small.

Winging it sounds creative: just me and my muse at the computer, ready for whatever might happen. But I’ve come to learn that, for me, following an outline is a far more creative process.

If anything can happen, I only have to skim the surface of my imagination to come up with the next step. But if something specific must happen to carry my plot—within the confines of a certain setting and particular characters and future plot points that rest on it—then I really have to dig deep. Then I’m grappling with all my imagination.

And it’s still a process of enormous discovery. Storylines change as details fill in. Certain actions prove impossible to execute or certain characters just won’t do what I’d planned for them. Supporting characters become dispensible while minor scenes become critical. My protagonist grows before my eyes and finds his voice. Subplots blossom and themes pull together in ways I didn’t dream of. (Yet I always have my outline to refer to if I’m stuck or my energy lags.)

But the greatest discovery, the most exciting thing for me, is finding out how I’m going to tell the story. My lengthy outlines don’t spoil that discovery. Because what the story is and how the story is told are completely different things, and for me it’s the latter that fascinates. My first draft is not me figuring out what’s going to happen. It’s me figuring out how to show it in an authentic and compassionate way, how to feel it from my characters’ points of view, and how to manipulate language to make a reader care. That’s the discovery I treasure most.

I don’t wander aimlessly anymore. I speed toward my goal. And I work so much harder to get there.

So if you never outline and that works for you, godspeed. But if you’ve written a couple of novels that led nowhere yet you’re reluctant to outline your third because it seems too stiff or uncreative, let go of that reluctance. Envision. Outline. Then—if you’re still gripped by your story—draft. See where that takes you.

Always Someone’s Story

I’m halfway through scene-by-scene revisions on my novel. (These are the big revisions; I’ll still have cutting and polishing after I’m done—it never ends).

Saturday morning, I reread the revised 140 pages and grew depressed because the first few pages were dull, dull, dull. It gets good—it gets REALLY good—but it takes a while. A cover letter claiming, “You’ll be glad you slogged through the beginning,” is not a winner.

I’ve had a terrible time with the beginning of this book since I started it. I’ve rewritten it repeatedly, read a dozen how-to-write manuals, took all their advice and wrote it again and again, creating seven boring beginnings instead of one.

Here’s the thing. My narrator, Max, has just missed the first week of grade nine because he was away at a funeral. He’s flying home, eager to get back to his friends, football, work, life. His first line—in the most recent revision that so depressed me—was “I’d never been on a plane before.”

Boring, no? And Max’s musings grew even more boring for three full paragraphs before they became slightly more interesting. The first genuinely funny moment was on page four. Seriously. It was awful. (And the kid is a wiseass—there’s really no excuse.)

So I did the old, “I should chuck the whole thing out, I can’t believe I wasted six months of my life on this, it’s not worth another six months, maybe I’ll never write a decent thing again,” shtick. Then I dusted off my ego and let it lie, trusting that the beginning would come to me when it was ready.

In the library yesterday, I had my epiphany (less than 24 hours later!). I was picking up books and glancing at the first paragraphs, deciding what to borrow, when I realized that I should write a beginning I’d like to read. (The obviousness of my epiphany may explain its speediness.)

I’d been trying to do way too much on the first page. But as a reader, I don’t ask, “Is this the right place for the story to begin? Does it establish setting, foreshadow disaster, suggest the theme, introduce the narrator and his conflict, showcase the writer’s style?” No. All I ask is, “Do I want to read this person’s story?”

As a writer, all I have to do with my first page is make someone want to read this kid’s story. That’s it.

Theme, setting, conflict, etc.—those elements will come out but they can’t be forced in. The story comes first. And it’s always someone’s story. That was my real epiphany, I guess. I’m not writing my novel, I’m writing Max’s story. And Max would never start his story like that.

So I scrapped the first couple of pages of laboriously chosen words. I stopped trying to be a writer or adhere to any writing advice. I just got into my character. I walked around feeling like Max, his excitement building at the thought of getting home to his friends, his frustration with the ticket booth and baggage check and body scanners standing between him and his life on hold. And I wrote his flying-home scene from scratch.

Max’s new first line is: “The airport security guard was not amused when I dropped my pants in front of her.”

Much improved, no? Maybe this won’t be my last first line. But it has me on track and happy again, ready to face the godawful process of finishing my last half of revisions.

Stone by Stone

I am slowly but surely building a novel from my messy draft. Some days I only have time to edit a few pages – slim progress on what seems like an impossibly large job. But even pyramids were built stone by stone, so surely I can finish a book the same way.

There are writers for whom editing is not such a huge task. The talented ones who revise as they write, creating draft manuscripts that are almost ready for submission.

I am not one of those. 

I make no corrections while I draft. I rarely reread a single page and I don’t even write them all the first time. If I can’t work out a scene, I insert an asterisk with instructions to my future self [*introduce football team; Max annoys coach and gets detention*] and I move on. I don’t pause. I know my story is being chased by a scared and lazy perfectionist who’s certain to destroy it if she ever catches up. (It took many unfinished novels to learn to stay ahead of her.)

Built stone by stone

As a consequence, I spend three times as long revising as drafting. I’ve developed a revision to-do list to help me.

1. Read the manuscript for pacing and impact.

I read the entire book in one or two sittings and mark anything that rushes, drags, or feels inauthentic. I note unclear motivations, aimless characters, dull narrative, factual uncertainties, etc. But I don’t rewrite yet. I want a feel for the book as a whole, what works and what doesn’t.

2. Write a 1-sentence summary of every scene, who’s in it, and how many pages it takes.

This allows me a view of the book’s skeleton, to judge if it’s sound. If a key confrontation takes two pages while a digression goes on for ten, it needs fixing. If a minor character appears in every scene while the hero’s best friend barely shows, it needs fixing. If the plot pauses for several scenes, if the summaries don’t fit together logically, if it tells a story that’s not the hero’s story, or if the solution to the conflict is just plain stupid when reduced to its bare bones, then it’s really broken.  

Walking Backward book cover
Also built stone by stone

3. Rewrite and reduce (and sometimes recycle) one scene at a time.

I address everything I noted under step one and more. For each scene, I try to ask: Does it move the plot forward? Does it pull in the reader (via the hero’s point of view, with action shown not told, and steeped in the right mood)? Does it leave me wanting more? Is it necessary and interesting or can it be condensed or deleted? 

Beginnings need special consideration (Does the story really begin on page one or should I cut straight to page ten? Are the conflict and solution hinted at?), as do endings (Does the hero solve his own problem? Is it inevitable and yet surprising?). And somewhere in there I ask: Does each character have a unique consistent identity?


Chop out every stone not holding up your book.

4. Cut as much as possible.

About 10% of any draft can be cut through improved sentence construction and word choice. But more is often required. Entire scenes and characters may have to go if they don’t bring something new and critical to the work. 

I’ve read drafts in which the central story is buried under background information or irrelevant asides, and where the simplest action like crossing a room is lost in a detailed description of the floor plan. This is information a writer must know to work out plot and character, but the reader doesn’t need it. It derails the story and dilutes its impact.

For me, cutting requires several readings, a fearless heart, and a clear sense of what the book really means. I sometimes have to pretend it’s someone else’s book so I can dish out the tough love required.

5. Polish until you can’t polish any more.

I go through the book over and over, to check grammar, vary sentence length, cut adverbs, replace vague verbs and nouns, insert a little style, ensure consistency, etc. I read it out loud (or listen to the computer read it). I put it away for a week before polishing it some more. I keep making improvements until I read it and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

That feeling doesn’t last long. But if I get it in the mail quick enough, I’m on my way to a whole new story. Then it’s back to the very first stone.

Good News

Vacation Scene

First, my plane did not crash. (Make that planes, five of them, and not a single one crashed. What luck!) So I am back at home, alive, perfectly able to edit my draft novel/monstrosity before anyone reads it.

But after two weeks vacation, I really don’t feel like it. We’re having a mild spell in central Canada, the days are getting longer and sunnier, and I’d rather avoid office work until next November.

Thankfully, I have new motivation to keep me tied to a computer: my first novel, Walking Backward, is a finalist in the Canadian Library Association’s 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award

I was sent the news by the awesome marketing folk at Orca Book Publishers (Dayle and Leslie, who are always on top of things I never even heard of). I first thought, hmm, what does this list of the likes of Arthur Slade and Gordon Korman have to do with me?

Then I saw my name. And it was second on the list! (Okay, it’s alphabetical – R. J. Anderson beat me to first place. But still, I’m way ahead of Eva Weisman and Tim Wynne-Jones.)

Seriously, this is a huge honour and I’m thrilled to pieces.

But, having been raised Catholic, guilt follows quickly on the heels of any thrill. So I’m feeling that I should have finished another novel by now. (Truth be told, I’ve finished several. But they’re all younger and sillier and, most notably, unpublished-er than Walking Backward.) What I mean is that I should have another novel lined up for publication by now.

Why? So that when I walk around wearing my new T-shirt that reads, “My first novel is a finalist for the CLA 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award,” and people ask, “When is your next novel coming out?” I can give them an answer.

Energetic visitor

So I have to edit my monstrosity sometime before November. I’d do it right now if I didn’t have to walk the dog.

Make that dogs, two of them. My sweet old dog and I are babysitting a neighbour’s pup. He’s huge and half-wild, with tonnes of energy to burn out there in the fresh air. Honestly, look at this tough guy: if he asked you for another walk, would you say no?  

Maybe I’ll get to the book at sundown. Till then, I’ll bask in my good news.

Writing vs. Editing

On Monday, I finished the first draft of my new novel for the 10+ age group. (No time to blog with that on my plate.) As I was writing the last scenes, I brimmed with excitement, tears, sighs, joy, wonder, etc. The words, “I love it!” kept bubbling out of me, often accompanied by sniffles and smiles. My family just patiently nodded. They are used to my moods. 

I am taking a week away from the book before facing it with my editor’s hat on my head. I peeked at the draft yesterday and, yikes, it’s a mess. There is such a chasm between the drafting phase (intense, replete with flowing tears and pumping heart) and the revising phase (cold, replete with confused frown and tapping fingertips). I need a few more days before I can face that.

I’m going away on vacation. The book will be here when I get back. (Part of me worries, “What if the plane goes down and somebody finds that draft? After I’ve claimed to love it so much? How embarrassing.” No, I simply must live long enough to edit the thing.) I know it will be a disappointing read. So much work lies ahead of me – at least as much as I’ve already done. But I’ll find gems in the draft, I’m sure of that. Bright enough to keep me polishing the whole thing to a shine.

I spent the rest of this week putting the final polish on a chapter book I mentioned in my blog on nursery rhymes. This is inspiring work. The book is completely finished (i.e., to the point where I read it through and don’t want to change a thing) and I absolutely love it. Of course, I loved it when I drafted it six months ago (“This is so original, so captivating!”). But I REALLY did not love it when I first faced the editing process (“This is moronic. What was I thinking?”). It had a tiny kernel of a gem, which I have polished and fussed with and moved around and scraped and buffed so many times that I’ve come back to my original position of loving it, but with a more realistic affection. (“This is good. Someone will enjoy this.”) This gives me hope for the editing process I’m about to face on my longer novel.

I’ve come to think that writing is like love affairs. The drafting is heady and world-changing. You’ve never felt this way before about a piece of writing and you know you’ll never feel this way again. You can’t stop thinking about it. You’re an emotional basketcase. You need it so badly. It’s the best thing that ever happened to you.

Then the honeymoon’s over. You come down from the clouds and take a really good look at that first draft. Was it always this awkward? Where’s the wit and charm that swept you off your feet? It just sits there, too tired to take you dancing. And, boy, it could use a shave.

If you can get over that moment, you must begin to work on the relationship. (If it’s worth it. Some books are just not worth finishing, sad to say. Fun while it lasted. Time to move on.) A good marriage begins with accepting your draft for what it is. Probably not the greatest thing ever written. Certainly not as good as it could be. But maybe something worth keeping, worth appreciating, worth staying together and working on. 

And so you’re on the road to happiness, you and your draft. But it’s a road you have to flatten as you go. This book is going to bug you. You really won’t like it half the time. But keep focused. Stick with it. Think of the children. Start a thankfulness journal. Whatever it takes. Just keep working on it. You’ll fall in love again one day.

It’s hard to put on the editor’s hat but it’s necessary if you want anyone else to fall in love with your book. (That’s where the love affair comparison ends – nobody preps their spouse for the next partner, do they?) You have to cut out all the stupid bits and many of the clever bits, too. You have to justify the presence of every scene, keep a consistent point of view, give each character their own voice, and thirty-seven other tips for effective writing. You have to read it SO MANY TIMES, rethinking, rearranging, revising. Then once you get the framework right, you have to work on the actual lines. All of them. Egads. It’s so much work.

I’ve never been to marriage counselling but if it’s anything like editing, I don’t think I could handle it.

Soon I will become a brutal but sympathetic editor of a sloppy but mildly entertaining first draft. But for the next week, at least, I will remain head over heels in love.

Illustrations and other Surprises

I opened an email last week to find a message from my editor at Kids Can Press with a file attachment showing the revised roughs of my first picture book. What a treat!

Irrelevant Clipart

I can’t include a picture here, of course. You’ll have to wait for the finished book – now scheduled for release in Spring 2011. It will be worth the wait, since it’s being illustrated by the intensely creative, Governor-General’s-Award winning Virginie Egger.  It’s wonderful for a first-time picture book writer like me to be teamed with such a talent!

I used to wish I had the ability to illustrate my own stories. It’s unnerving handing your text to a total stranger. The entire look and feel of the book is in their hands. The vision you had while writing it is about to erased. And if it what comes back is not to your taste, that’s just too bad.

That used to be a scary thought. But not anymore. Now I like not controlling everything. It leaves room for surprises. To see my simple words transformed into something gorgeous is like planting a seed and getting a treeful of presents.

What a rewarding partnership! The experience is much fuller that if I’d done both the writing and illustrating on my own. (And since I can’t put together an outfit, let alone an illustration, it’s a whole lot better looking.)

Last week, my 7-year-old son asked if he could illustrate one of my stories. I said sure. Not everything I write will earn the attentions of a professional illustrator, after all. Most of my stories will probably never find a market. (If the best few do, I’ll be very happy.) But why should the pretty-good-but-not-great stories end up in a filing cabinet forever? Instead they could become family storybooks, weekend hobbies, picturebooks written and illustrated here at home, maybe passed on to grandchildren with scrapbooks and photo-stories. People do that with all sorts of folk art – quilts, pottery, jewelry, photography, paintings, carvings – so why not do it with stories? 

I’m going to dust off my dead files, grab my kid and some crayons, and give it a try. (And those pics I’ll be able to post here.)

Rewards of Research

I’ve been researching nursery rhymes for a silly early reader.

I’ve discovered long-winded versions of many short familiar rhymes. The famous little star twinkles through five verses; children go round the mulberry bush half a dozen times; Jack and Jill go home and get whipped by their mother; the girl with the curl stands on her head and bangs her heels against the window.

I found out that Bobby Shafto has a baby on the way (I bet he’s never coming back). And the three little kittens started to bug me, what with losing and finding and dirtying and washing their mittens again and again. Enough already. I’ll stick to the first verse or two of those rhymes.

I like the full Mary Had a Little Lamb but I dislike the repetitive song . An American version has the lamb’s fleece “as white as cotton.” (“And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb it went a-trottin’.”) 

Jane Cabrera's Old Mother Hubbard

As a child, my favourite rhyme was one of the longest and silliest: Old Mother Hubbard. I loved the weirdness of the dog coming back from the dead, and the illustrations of him dancing and dressing and riding a goat. Many children must have loved it, since it came down through the ages in its entirety while Jack and Jill were left wrapping their heads in paper.

I never tried to learn Old Mother Hubbard by heart. It has always been a rhyme to be read with pictures. Not like Miss Muffett or Wee Willie Winkie or Mary’s little lamb, which were just as easily spoken.

This favourite rhyme was written by Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826), who took a stock nursery character and wrote the story in the form we know today (like a very minor Homer). It was published in June 1805 as The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog. It was an instant success, selling over ten thousand copies in a few months. Pirated editions sprang up everywhere, and there has been a new edition of the poem published in some book or other just about every year since. (Check out the original here.)

That’s a pretty good run for an unknown writer. Ms. Martin wrote a sequel in 1806 but, like the long-winded versions of other rhymes, no one knows it anymore because it’s too long and dull. (You can read it here if you want.)

Not Mary's lambs

Less familiar nursery rhymes can be fun to discover, but you have to sift through a lot of junk to find a few gems. Collections of early rhymes hold delights no longer considered fit for children. Like folk tales, nursery rhymes have always had their detractors. The mid-twentieth century saw a movement toward “nursery rhyme reform” which managed to clean up some of the naughtier ditties. (For a list of documented nursery rhyme offences from Geoffrey Handley-Taylor’s 1952 collection, see here.)

Today we read of children being kissed sweetly instead of beaten soundly before bed. I haven’t seen a recent Mother Goose with any of these nasty insults:

  • “Tell-tale, tit! Your tongue shall be split. / And all the dogs in the town shall have a little bit!” (Anti-tattling taken to extremes.)
  • “See! See! What do I see? / A horse’s head where his tail should be!” (Difficult to visualize, but it sounds clever.) 
  • “Piss a bed,/ Piss a bed,/ Barley Butt. / Your bum is so heavy/ You can’t get up.” (Good for children fond of sleeping in.)
No mittens in here

What did I say? Absolute treasures. And very inspiring for my (currently unpublishable) early reader. Have a look at the old rhymes and see what gems you can discover.

Happy New Year.
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