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Outline Everything


I have found that there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline everything. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may have some idea of where the story goes, or they may have nothing other than an idea and a character or two. They really wing it. They admit that they don’t know how the story will end.

I’ve heard pantsers say that they can’t outline because it will take away all of the creativity and spontaneity of writing. Of course, this is complete piffle. As a committed plotter, let me assure you that outlining does not take away any of the creativity – in fact, it multiplies it.

Let’s just call it what it is: pantsers don’t know how to outline because they haven’t been taught. And they haven’t been taught how to outline because they haven’t been taught how to write. They haven’t been taught how to write because they never took the time and trouble to learn the discipline of composition.

If I had my way, people who have never studied Creative Writing shouldn’t write or call themselves a writer. You’re not a tuba player simply because you own a tuba or your mommy thinks you’re the best tuba player ever. Like anything else, you have to put in the wrench time. Learning is hard work, regardless of the subject. Creative Writing is something that takes a lifetime to learn and longer to master what you have learned.

Those who have taken multiple Creative Writing classes and have learned the basics know the value of outlining, even the necessity of it. Stories have structure. But more than that, composition is always more of an art than a science. Some people have studied the structure of stories, but still know nothing about who to write a great story.

It’s Not That Bad

An outline for a novel can be done on a Word document or on index cards or on a white markerboard. How you outline and how much you outline is up to you, but please, do something! I truly think that pantsers do some outlining, but maybe they don’t write it all down. I had a pantser tell me once that writing a novel was like playing music, and while I like to read the music on the page to see what notes to play he liked to play jazz. Even jazz musicians read music – it’s called a chart. It has time and tempo, key and chord changes. No one plays notes willy-nilly. Jazz improvisors follow an outline, and in some way, so do pantsers. I’m sure of it.

Instead of music, think of your novel as a university term paper, or more to the point, an advanced degree thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. No one writes a term paper without an outline of some kind. You are writing a creative dissertation and it needs to be organized and based upon some kind of structure. And like all good papers, you build everything around the thesis. The introduction builds to the thesis and the closing wraps things up after the thesis has been proven by the body of the paper. The setting for our story is the introduction and it all leads to the thesis – or in other words, the conflict. All things lead to the climax, the resolution of the conflict, and the denouement takes out of it and into our The End.

The body of our creative thesis is the rising action of our story. Everything that is a part of the rising action needs to help or hinder our hero from achieving or not achieving what he wanted but could not get that set up the conflict. This achieving or not is the conflict. The rising action is the hardest part of the novel to write. We need to know what happens between Once upon a time and They all lived happily ever after. This requires preparation and organization. It requires an outline.

Welcome To The Machine

Stated in the most tedious terms, novel writing is a series of making and correcting mistakes. That’s why writing is re-writing. It may be impossible to come up with a perfect manuscript, but merely one you can live with. Anything that cuts down on the errors should be eagerly pursued. Making an outline for your novel will give you much less to edit out. And there is no better preventative for the dreaded Writer’s Block than the slightly less dreaded novel outline. All of this preparing and organizing tends to fix problems before they begin.

Outlining helps us avoid all of the bad stuff and do all of the good stuff. It gives our novel direction and somewhere to go. We have a definite point A and point B and we know how to get to one from another even if it’s not a straight line. And if we consider the final product, all of the things we like in a really good novel can’t be done by pantsing, but only by plotting. Speaking for myself, my outlines give a better story because it gives me better characters. All of those wonderful sparkles of literary fiction certainly cannot be achieved without an outline, such as portends and symbolism.

I’ve heard people cry against outlining because they cannot be creative or spontaneous if they are following an outline. From my experience, an outline feeds my creativity and is the course of constant surprises. Remember that Creative Writing is almost an organic, living and breathing entity, something that does not so much come out of us but through us from – somewhere. We will still be startled by this we discover as we write, even with an outline, or said better, because of our outline. Some novels are non-chronological. I don’t see how a personal pull this off without some preparation. And on top of that, I don’t always writing chronologically even if the story is. I may skip around, chapter 1 today, 2 tomorrow, and then chapter 5 the next. I could not do that if it was a slave to chapter due to pantsing.

Here’s my secret: I get me ideas for my novels from my dreams – I really do. I write down the basics the following morning and let it sit. I decide what to write and pick two dates, one to begin outlining and another to start writing. I’ll spend six to eighth months preparing and organizing and two to three months drafting. I’ll look through my original notes and set out the road story, then I’ll make a list of potential characters like you see at the beginning of a play. I return to the story and break things into scenes and go back to the characters and flesh them out more. This ping-pong game allows me to develop story alongside my characters. No only do outline give me a cleaner first draft, but a novel where the story and the characters were developed side by side, and I think everything is the better for it.

I hope this advice helps you as it has helped me. And keeping in line with the title of this article, I outlined this post before I did anything else.


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“Of All The Gin Joints In All The World:” The Power Of Coincidence In Fiction


One of the most beloved and best quoted movies in the 1942 classic Casablanca. It’s set in the costal Moroccan town during the Second World War. Our hero, Rick Blaine, is an American expat who for runs a nightclub and casino. A Czech leader of the Resistance, Victor Lazlo, comes to Casablanca and to Rick’s place with a woman, Elsa Lund, one with whom Rick shared a romantic past in Paris. They decide to leave when the German Occupation is upon them, but she abandons him at the train station with only a note of goodbye.

The Germans are trying to keep Victor from leaving for America. In the end, Rick helps them escape, even though he sticks out his neck for nobody. He is strongly tempted to disappear with Elsa and leave Victor with the enemy. He nobly sacrifices his happiness for the greater good, the fight against Nazism. One of the most familiar lines comes the night Rick sees Elsa again after the club is closed. He says, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to come into mine.”

It Just So Happens

It is the greatest of coincidences that she had just happened to come with her husband to the club ran by her ex-boyfriend. But the movie would be nothing without that coincidence. It’s not just the arrival of Elsa. There are a series of coincidences that make the story possible. It just so happens that letters of transit were stolen from German couriers, and it just so happens that the thief asks Rick to watch over the letters. Another coincidence is that the thief is shot. Now Rick is in a place to help Victor or himself or no one. The string of coincidences begins long before all of this. It’s coincidence that some time before Victor was a prisoner of the Germans and Elsa thought he was dead, that as a grieving widow she happens to meet and fall for Rick, and finds out Victor is both alive and free just as she is supposed to leave Paris with Rick.

Great storytelling relies on the wonderful power of coincidence and how it connects the dots of the plot. Coincidence arranges for Jay Gatsby to live across the bay from his former girlfriend, Daisy Faye, now Daisy Buchannan. This same coincidence just happens to arrange for her cousin to move in next door to Gatsby, and he uses this to arrange a reacquaintance that steers the rest of the story. Sometimes the coincidence helps with the plot twist. Pip just happens across an escaped prisoner and helps him, and coincidentally he grows rich and becomes Pip’s benefactor. Pip and the reader assume this will help him win Estella, but it doesn’t. She is such a manhater like Mrs. Havisham that Pip is better off without her. And the twist is the help of the benefactor places Pip in a better world with class and status.

Suspension Of Disbelief

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the idea of the need for a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of any reader of fiction. Without this, the reader constantly exclaims, “That’ll never happen,” and never get around to enjoying the story. Try reading and enjoying “Oedipus Rex” with your skepticism barking as a guard dog at every fantastic occurrence. In genre like Fantasy and Science Fiction, it is clear how the suspension of disbelief is indispensable. But even in more mainstream stories with realistic settings, a willing suspension of disbelief is needful. One place this works is in the story’s reliance upon a heavy use of coincidence to make sure everything happens just as it should.

The Creative Writer needs to be aware that coincidence is necessary for fiction and not be afraid to use it. We can hope that the reader will do their job and chain up the dog. Still, we need to be careful in how we apply the use of circumstance to suit the story. If it’s done in a ham-handed manner it will be a weight to the suspension and help the skepticism poke through. We need to take care to apply the coincidental in a manner that is still believable, something that makes the reader say, “I could see it happening like that.” It needs to resemble the time and chance that happens to us all. If coincidence does not look like the regular occurrence of life that happens to everyone, it’ll be hard to swallow. So when our characters have their own “of all the gin joints” moment in our stories, the reader consoles the character, and says, “I’ve been there before, too, buddy!”


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The Wide World Of Composition

One of the fond memories from my youth is the voice of Jim McKay introducing this week’s Wide World Of Sports on ABC. “Scanning the Globe to bring you the constant variety Of Sports. The Thrill of Victory, and The Agony Of Defeat. The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition.”

I looked forward to it every Saturday afternoon. My favorites were anything with Muhammad Ali or the Harlem Globetrotters. I also enjoyed each week watching the ski jumper fall down.

Jim McKay’s opening call is an indelible part of Americana. Not only the words, but the timbre of his voice gave a special uniqueness to the brand if such a wonderful show. His opening anthem is beautiful and so deep, it has applications that seem unreal until you reach them. Believe it or not, it works on Creative Writing.

Scanning The Globe

Of all the writers that I call great, most of them write about a very limited setting. Faulkner wrote about northern Mississippi and Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age flappers in New England. Hemingway had a bit of variety, but it was still only places he had been.

We live in a big world and we have many places to set our stories. They don’t all have to be in our backyards. I’ve written three novels and I am now editing a novella, and all of them are set all over the place. My first novel is set in turn of the century Sicily, my second in 1850s Weatherford, Texas, and my third in 21st century Los Angeles. My novella’s main story take place in current Abilene, Texas, but has back story that goes from the 1920s to our time through New York, Dublin, Barcelona, Nairobi, and the Ural steppes.

Living in the age of the internet makes it easier to research these places and times. In fact, this dedication to research is necessary if you write in a place you haven’t lived. Paris in the 1920s was not a Wi-Fi hotspot. Maybe this is why the Lost Generation writers whom I admire so were so limited about their settings. Yet by the internet I was able to read accounts from Harpers’ Bazaar recording the accounts of Garibaldi’s 1870 liberation of Palermo.

The Constant Variety Of Sports

There is only one story, and that is the story of what it means to live as a human being. But there are myriad cases of what this really means. Your writings will have consistent tones and themes, but don’t be a broken record. All of my heroes so far have had to struggle between what he wants to do and what he ought to do. But I have different types of conflicts in mind for other stories.

People are different. Some are heroic like Hamlet and others not so much like Prufrock. You can write of people who succeed because they do the right thing, but you can also write of people who fail because they did the wrong thing. They may be well intentioned but ignorant like Parzival or just weak in doing what they know to be right like Viktor Komarovsky.

The Thrill Of Victory

I have been accused of writing stories with sad endings, even though in my three complete and my one work in progress the heroes have all ended up doing what is right. I see that as a success more than what the consequences may be. my fist hero saved the life of his brother-in-law who has sworn to kill him. My second put his newborn son in a shoebox and rode him across the Red River and handed him to a cousin of his wife whom he lost in childbirth. My third said a tearful good-bye to the love of his life so that he can save a small dairy in a small town even though his life is threatened for so doing. Are these not successes, and thrilling ones at that? I sure hope they are, but I’ll let the reader decide for himself.

Success is not always winning, but enduring. That I why stories like The Sound And The Fury have happy endings to me. Miss Quinten gets away from the Compson family and her uncle Jason particularly, and with the money he stole from her. That is a happy ending. Success doesn’t always have to be getting what you want, but learning to cope with failure. Holden Caulfield, who only wants to stop the clock, is satisfied with his sister riding a carousel, which is the closest he will ever get to arresting time.

The Agony Of Defeat

Sometimes a failure destroys a main character. He cannot cope with loss or failure. Sometimes this failure leads to his own death or the death of others, as with Jay Gatsby. For those who survive, their lives may spiral down into the deepest of dispairs, as with Dick Diver. Maybe the worst of all failures is when the protagonist realizes that life goes on for them and everyone else as if their loss didn’t matter at all, as in the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes. And other times the calamity is that others have to live with the mess made by the main character, like all those stained by Thomas Supten.

The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition

All sports are based upon competition. Where it’s Muhammad Ali boxing Joe Frazier or the Harlem Globetrotters running up the score on the Washington Generals, two parties want something and both of them cannot get it. This competition in literature is called conflict, and it is the sizzle to the steak of a good story.

Why does any novel exist? Because someone wants something and someone or something wants the same thing or something else, but both parties cannot be satisfied. We all have studied the man versus nature, man versus man, man versus self stuff, but what I mean involves that but goes far beyond.

Captain Ahab wants the White Whale. The Whale does not want him to succeed, his crew does not want him to succeed, the forces of nature do not want him to succeed, and worst of all, it seems God doesn’t want him to succeed. And still the Captain goes on. This is how conflict makes a great story.

What makes sports so wonderful and entertaining is what makes great literature so enduring. Both give us a glimpse into the notion of what it means to live as a human being. The best stories have characters that are individual, but also identifiable. We see their struggles as our own, or at least in the same ballpark.

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Why Mistakes Are Good

As Creative Writers, we want everything to go perfectly in our writing. We like workable first drafts and we cut all of our mistakes in the following drafts. Things go wrong, but we try to fix them.

But some problems are unavoidable, even intentional. Imperfections are a part of the perfection of composition. We as Creative Writers want things to go wrong and be wrong. This creates a text that is both realistic and interesting.

Give Every Character A Flaw

One of the basics that my Creative Writing professor stressed was the idea that every character should be given some physical quirk. Often in class he would remark that this character or that character in some student’s story needed a physical quirk.

I remember sitting in his office discussing this point. I complained that one guy has an eye patch, and another guy has a prosthetic leg, and it sounds like I’m writing a bunch of pirate stories. He explained to me how these quirks added to the uniqueness of the character. Just as all people do not look alike, so to should our characters. He also mentioned that a quirk does not have to be some deficiency, but something particular to them.

In time I figured that the physical can illuminate the personal, the internal, and the psychological. A heart problem may tell us of a character who is heartless. Someone with arthritis may be stubborn or in some other way stiff and inflexible. A person who is double jointed can be indecisive.

But more than personality, the deep parts of our brains can be individualized with such things as personality types, but also psychological disorders or tendencies. A character who is a paranoid or a histrionic is more interesting than someone completely sane and normal.

Make Something Go Wrong

The scene is almost a cliché – the woman is chased, gets in the car, and has some problem with the keys. Either she drops them the engine won’t start. This gives the killer or monster or whomever is chaser her time to catch up and bang on the driver’s side window just as she screams and drives off.

Sure, it’s a cliché, but it works. That is why it is done so often. A good Creative Writer will try to make something go wrong in every scene. It gives the people in the scene something to do. There is a difficulty to consider and a problem to overcome. This not only puts action in your scene, but illuminates the characters. How a person act is just as important as the fact that they act.

For example, if a person is having a heart attack and calls for their child in the room to hand them their pills, you can show much by the response. If the child races to the bottle and runs crying to the father with pleas for survival, that shows us about the child differently than the one who holds on to the pills and intentionally withholds them.

Make something go wrong in every scene. It provides a chance for good action, shows what is really inside a person and their relationships, but it is also a great way to raise the tension of the story. The whole point of the middle of the story is to create tension. This is the key to a page turner and the real essence of rising action.

Life is not perfect and no one is flawless. Make sure your writing reflects this. It contributes to authentic tales and appealing stories. Give your characters quirks on the inside as well as the outside. Make something go wrong in every scene. It furthers along the characters, their associations, the actions within the plot, as well as the plot itself. Mistakes are not mistakes in Creative Writing. They are intention ways of being the best prosiers we can.

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