Tag Archives: outlining

Your Story: the Macro View

I started writing The Hydra Effect in my 1970 VW pop-top camper while navigating Hwy 95 between Acapulco and the Guerrero State capitol, Chilpanzingo. I dictated into my mini-recorder between tollbooths. I felt like a fool, telling stories to no one. But I had a story, I was sure of it:

A closer to 40 than 30-something Californian was driving a VW pop-pot camper, her dog sleeping on the backseat, along a lonely stretch of Mexico 200, the Pacific Coast Highway,in the State of Michoacán when narcos drove up alongside the bus and threatened the woman with guns.

I dictated every detail of the incident down to the flash of the VW’s headlamps off the gold chains around the neck of a piggish-looking thug with a semi-automatic rifle. (Not that I’d ever seen one before, except on Miami Vice.)

It was going to be a best seller, a blockbuster movie, the inspiration for a gritty cable series—I was sure of it. Until I realized that’s all I had. An isolated, if very scary, incident. I stopped dictating, paid my near $50 in tolls and let my harrowing experience percolate through my brain for the next twelve years until I’d found some characters, some things those characters wanted, and an ending. And that’s when I got busy making some decisions about what kind of story I was writing, as by then it was Nanowrimo 2004, and I wrote 50,000 words—but not until I was able to articulate my premise. That took me two weeks, and once it was stuck to my monitor on a sticky note, I cranked out the book.

The premise was my focus. It’s changed somewhat since that madcap contest, but that one sentence pointed the way to a setting (that I had!), several characters, a main conflict, and an inner wound. I came up with a premise by asking myself “what if” questions. K.M. Weiland adds to this the “what is expected?” question. She asks herself what the average reader expects and then turns each expectation “on it’s head to insert the unexpected wherever possible.”

Once you’ve identified some what ifs and what’s expecteds, the next step is to refine the ideas into the premise sentence. Why? Because it will help you decide if your idea will hold up for the length of a story. Through the premise you will identify your point of view character(s), a conflict and through that, a plot. Weiland puts it, “Your what if question gives you an idea; your premise gives you a plot.”

Investigator JadeAnne Stone accepts a missing persons case against the wishes of her boyfriend/partner and discovers Mexico is more than beaches and margaritas when she and attack-trained, Pepper, are hijacked en route to Ixtapa, and ensnared in a web of violence and intrigue as oil politics intersect with money laundering and El Narco’s grab for power.

I can’t say it’s a perfect premise, but it sure worked as a mini-outline to keep the rough draft on track. And from that, I was able to find each next step of my plot, the characterization, and even characters that needed to be added. Additionally, once I had actually finished the draft, the premise acted as an answer to all those folks asking, “What’s your book about?” Now it’s part of my pitch.

 How can you use your premise to its maximum advantage?

Ask yourself what questions each part of the premise raise. I might ask, why would JadeAnne take the case against her partner’s wishes? Has she been targeted for the hijacking? Why would a woman alone with only a dog drive through the most dangerous part of Mexico?

After exhausting the premise possibilities, ask more general questions—your pre-outline questions.

Weiland (Outlining Your Novel, Map Your Way To Success) lists:

1               What are 4 or 5 big moments that will occur in the plot?

2               Can you think of at least 2 complications for each of these moments?

3               Will these complications push your characters in ways that make them uncomfortable?

4               What additional settings will these complications demand?

(If you don’t have a main character:)

5               Which character will be the protagonist?

6               Which character will be affected most by the inciting incident?

7               Does this character have at least 2 major problems or anxieties in his life? Which offers the most potential for conflict and drama?

8               How does this problem affect other characters?

These, and whatever other questions you can ask of your premise and of yourself, will form the basis for your outline. You’ll find there aren’t any right or wrong answers—just answers with a lot of energy, and answers with less energy. Which will you pick? Each choice will draw a new flood if ideas. It’s called brainstorming. Keep at it until you have considered every possibility, and when the brainstorming is done, the creating can start!

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Stymied, Stumped and Surrendered

As a confirmed pantser, I’ve relied on the endless stream of ideas that flow through my fingertips onto the page, coupled with an innate sense of novel structure, to carry my work from beginning to end. Well, I pulled it off once. Now I’m thirteen chapters into a sequel to my JadeAnne Stone Mexico adventures, The Hydra Effect. And I’m lost. I simply don’t know where to go from the shoot-out at the meth lab. I mean, really. These people weren’t armed—they shouldn’t even have survived, let alone rescued a gaggle of kids awaiting transit to masters in the slave trade. So now what?

I’ve beaten my head into my keyboard for two years. I’ve called it writer’s block, although I’ve managed to write plenty of columns for the Petaluma Post, a sprinkling of poems, and I’m almost finished with a memoir of living in Mexico, Saints and Skeletons (be sure to read the blog when it’s up.) The problem isn’t lack of ideas. Conception is a right-brain activity—you know how ideas simmer on the back burner and are added to by flashes of inspiration? I had all that, and still have ideas percolating, but these ideas aren’t coming together into a storyline.

What if:
JadeAnne resolves to rescue the American girls from the traffickers?
Anibal knew about the house and meth-lab all along?
Anibal plans on selling the girls to the highest bidder?
(So far so good!)
What if Anibal is affiliated with the Zetas? The Sinaloa Cartel?
What if Anibal isn’t affiliated with any cartel but sells JadeAnne?
(Oops! This is probably the end of her adventures. Now it’s about Anibal.)
JadeAnne is kidnapped by one of the cartels?
JadeAnne’s natural father, who she has never met, materializes and saves her?
The man she’s after isn’t a cartel member, but a legalization advocate?

Help! I need some organization— some old-fashioned left-brain thinking—to sort out the pieces that fit together and fill in the pieces that are missing. I need some logic or this thriller isn’t going to make any sense at all. I hate to admit that all my English teachers were right, but what I need to do now is work out an outline. For a pantser, that’s almost a dirty word.

My right-brain whines, “But where’s the creativity? Where’s the inspiration?”

“Where’s the story?” Left lobe asks, a smear of sarcasm in her voice.

“I’ve forgotten how to write a Harvard Outline!”

“Make a storyboard with pictures. Stick idea Post-its to the wall—rearrange them. Make a list. Concoct a Mind Map. Make a real map—glue pictures to a real map. Use your writing software. Use a pencil and a steno pad. Outline on your smart phone—I don’t care. Just finish the damn book,” Leftie says.

But will it kill the spontaneity? Not if it’s done right. According to K.M. Weiland, in Outlining Your Novel—Map Your Way to Success,“The only right way of constructing an outline is the one that offers you the most freedom for creativity.”

A good outline leaves room for exploration and even helps spark new ideas. Once the outline is completed, your right brain can write the story. Later, your left-brain can revise, but after the outlining, your revision will be way easier, I’m told. Not the ten annual rewrites of The Hydra Effect?

Here are some benefits of outlining:

1               The outline acts as a structural framework. You can see if your inciting incident, plot turns and climax are occurring in the right places with the right energy.

2               An outline will keep you from writing your character into a corner.

3               It will act as a map to a known ending, thereby allowing for foreshadowing and pacing as well as improved continuity.

4                An outline will clearly demonstrate the correct POV for each scene.

5               Knowing a character somewhat before writing helps keep the voice consistent.

6               And the lagniappe—an outline gives us confidence—we know where we’re going!

Everybody, even a pantser, needs a map.

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