Must you outline your novel before you start writing? It’s so boring, it’s a lot of work, and you’d rather just dive right in.
I dove in and started writing To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, and I got lost after a few chapters. It’s about my hitchhiking journey as a 15-year-old from Oklahoma to California, so I knew the whole story. However, several chapters in, I needed help.
I found it in the hero’s journey, the 12-step process from Disney scriptwriter Chris Vogler. The hero starts in his ordinary world, the hero hears a herald’s call to action, the hero refuses, the hero meets a mentor, the hero finally answers the call, crosses the threshold into the special world, finds allies and enemies, approaches a series of tests, finds a great ordeal, wins the reward he’s seeking, starts the road back to his ordinary world, symbolically dies but is resurrected before the final battle, and returns with the prize that saves everyone in the hero’s ordinary world.
Whether they realized it or not, the hero’s journey is the storytelling formula used by every writer from Homer to George Lucas because it’s the gold standard in how to tell a proper story.
I pasted the 12 steps in my story, and made sure my fictional character – who was really me – followed each one. The hero’s journey guided me to the end.
But there’s more than one way to skin a felis catus. In an Oct. 10, 2013 column, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, editor-in-chief of Script magazine, encourages writers to outline, but then don’t stick to it. Instead, writers should give themselves permission to write with reckless abandon.
Bowerman has a problem with starting scripts. Before starting to write, this self-proclaimed outline junkie lingers far too long in character and conflict possibilities. So, for what was then her next new project, Bowerman tried something different. She roughed an outline, not as detailed as ones she normally writes. Some of her script outlines have been 31 pages long. If that sounds like the biggest ouchie in the history of biggest ouchies, John Irving has said he has outlined for 18 months.
But wait. Why are novelists and non-fiction writers studying scriptwriting techniques? Because a story is a story, whether it comes from Friends, Star Wars, Romeo & Juliet, or Gone Girl.
So here are Bowerman’s lessons to learn:
1. Characters change: Bowerman thought she knew who her heroine’s love interest was going to be – a dude the heroine picked up in a bar while on a business trip. But instead of picking up a stranger in a bar, Bowerman found her fictional heroine meeting her number-one client in in a boardroom, and they ended up making out with him in an elevator. Turns out, her heroine didn’t need a drink to get frisky.
Bowerman liked that better than her original idea. The new scene said more about the heroine, her job, and her sexual and professional frustrations. Readers learned more about the heroine in that elevator than the setup from the original outline. Which is precisely Bowerman’s point. All the writer needs in an outline is, “Heroine meets love interest.” Maybe include an idea of how, but the creative juices are flowing when the writer starts writing the scene. By then, the fictional heroine may decide for herself how she wants to hook up.
C.L. Talmadge, author of Green Stone of Healing, was standing in a Safeway checkout line when he saw a book of baby names. “I opened it to the G section. ‘That’s me,’ one character said. I heard it in my head.” The character Griffin literally announced his name. Talmadge listened.
2. Understanding the heroine: Bowerman advocated seeing layers in her characters. “A character with no layers is not only boring to read, but also boring to write… I suggest doing it as an exercise before you write your first draft. Pull up a Word doc and have it at. Write a couple of pages of your character’s diary. You might come up with some plot points not in your original outline. I know I did.”
Often, just before I go to sleep, I think about what I want to do tomorrow. I may crawl around inside the hero’s head. If I start generating a hot idea, I’ll pick up my pen and pad from the bed table and booom. If I’m really hot, I’ll fetch my computer and write a scene, or maybe a character study. Planning the hero is fine, but it’s a hot mess to spend 30 exciting minutes inside your hero’s head.
3. Buried themes: Bowerman knows her story’s main theme, but she fine tunes it when she writes the first draft. She analyzes whether the subplots showcase the theme. Sometimes the theme is refined in the first draft to better deliver the message. Sometimes a hidden message, one she didn’t realize was there, forces its way to the surface as she writes.
4. Going off road: When the writer types the first draft, an outline forces the story in one direction. So, Bowerman said, the writer should sit back and resist the temptation to let the outline take control. “Sure. The new direction may not end up in the final script, but that’s why it’s called a draft.”
This is a good time to ask, exactly what is a first draft? Webster says it’s a preliminary version, a rough outline, plan, skeleton, abstract, bare bones.
“Stop trying to make the first draft perfect,” Bowerman wrote. “Write like you’re naked.”
Yeah, yeah, pajamas. You get the point.
5. Don’t overthink: Just like we can get stuck in outlining, we can also get trapped in the abyss of writing the first draft. Bowerman had lunch with a screenwriter who had gone back and changed her beginning four times, and had yet to get to FADE OUT on draft one. “Be forceful in resisting the urge to do edits until you have fleshed the entire story out,” Bowerman wrote. “By the time you’re done with the first pass, you’ll discover the elements that need to change in draft two. But before they can change, and you can truly understand your entire story, you need to vomit the words out on the page. JUST DO IT! Put them down and then go back and change details later. Don’t waste your time tweaking scenes early on, because those scenes may not even exist in draft two.”
6. Don’t try to please: “Having a disease to please can suck the life right out of you,” Bowerman wrote. “The need to please also kills a story. Once you write that outline, there’s a tendency to want to stick to it.”
Instead, she suggested, “Think of your outline as a caterpillar. The first draft is the cocoon… On the rewrite, the cocoon pops open and the gorgeous butterfly takes flight.”
7. Before To Daddy, Who I Never Loved was published as a 319-page novel, it was a 453-page tome called Daddy Issues. That title was too generic, and the only prospective agent who ever gave me feedback said it was way too long for a YA. Well, it never was a YA, but he thought it was. So I killed my darlings: several chapters, 25 percent of the pages, and about 30,000 words. It was hard, but I wasn’t married to that bloated manuscript. I was married to producing the best novel I could.