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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Outlining & Plotting

Well, over at Absolute Write Water Cooler we had a drive-by example from one of my favorite authors (who will hopefully be lured back by the promised 6-pack dangling from the gallows here), let's go on a bit and talk about outlining or what some might call plotting.

Many authors will tell you they don't outline or plot. However, I think that in some way most authors do in some way. Some authors will write copious notes and details on every scene - to the extent that their notes sometimes equal or exceed the word count of their novel. Others will just scribble away writing a note on a Post-It and sticking it in a file somewhere. I've seen authors who had a dedicated file or notebook or box for every novel they had written and every single one of them was practically overflowing.

Whether you call it outlining or plotting or simply jotting notes about what you need to remember about your story the result is essentially the same. You're creating a roadmap for yourself about where you want the story to go and what you want to have happen along the way.

Think of starting a novel like starting a long road trip - they're essentially the same.

You wouldn't dream of starting out on a long road trip without a map, some idea of what your gas mileage is in your vehicle, where you might want and need to stop for gas, rest, sleep, food, coffee, see some sights, take a tour, meet some new and interesting people, etc., etc., would you? You need to know where you might need to turn, what exits to take, where you might have to go long periods without a gas station in sight, and what the weather is going to be like along the way.

Your story is a long road trip. If it's a short story, it;s still a road trip. If it's an 80 thousand word novel it's a much longer road trip. There are always going to be bumps in the road, gas stations you need to use, coffee to keep you going, and sights and things along the way to do. The longer the trip, the more important it is, to me at least, to know a lot of things right up front before I set out.

Last year I completed an 1800+ mile move from California to Oklahoma. For those that don;t know, that's the equivalent distance from Paris to Moscow. I did it with my dog in a 26-ft moving truck in 35 hours time (32 hours of that actual driving time). I also had several acquaintances drive my car that same distance. I had the mielage of the truck and the car down such that the amount of money needed for gas along the way was almost precisely accurate. I knew the sights I wanted to see along the way (but didn;t bother to stop at since I was anxious to get the trip over and done with once I was underway). I knew where the truck stops were. I knew where I might run into slowdowns due to traffic or speed traps.

You need to know the same things and more before you start out on the road trip that is your story. You do not want to end up a quarter or halfway or even three-fourths of the way through the story and suddenly lose focus, forget, or have to go away from the story and come back and be completely lost.

That's what an outline and a plot is for - it's a road map for your story.

It doesn;t have to be pretty. It doesn;t have to be organized.

It has to be accessible.

Tomorrow, I'll go over a few examples of how various authorities say the proper way to outline and plot is, but if you want to read about a good one, you can visit Joe Konrath's website and read his outline for Bloody Mary or you can search Uncle Jim's thread for the 3x5 index card technique.

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