Wednesday, September 19, 2018

OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL

Hi folks

From time to time, I rerun the following material in hope of reaching new audience members. This is basic material, but I've found that oftentimes new writers have never been exposed to some of the material.

This is the exact handout all new members of my online novel-writing class receive and are required to adhere to. It works, as evidenced by the fact that nearly three dozen writers have had their novels published or gained good agents after writing their novels with us.

I hope that you gain value from it. A lot of it may seem like old wine in new bottles and it is, but it sometimes pays off when reviewing material we may have forgotten.

One thing I've noticed is that sometimes writers feel they don't want to outline. Been there, done that. However, please read the following with an open mind. It may help that I don't believe in those outlines Missus Gundy used to have us write back in PS 101--those ten-page long monstrosities with Roman Numerals. The outline described here consists of five statements and 15-25 words. Period. You can write it on a postcard or a napkin. Those who've given it a try though  swear by it.

Okay. Sales spiel over...


Once I convinced our beagle Buddy to use an outline, he was able to finish his book. True story...



OUTLINING A STORY
Les Edgerton

            Like a lot of writers, I wasted a lot of time in my writing career simply because I ignored what is probably the biggest "secret" in creating short stories and novels. I didn't outline.
            Outlines were a particular type of hell English teachers visited upon you - those horrid things with Roman numerals and topics and subtopics and all that junk. Yuch! Outlining took all the fun out of reading a book.
            I also read interviews with writers who said they never outlined. It would destroy their "creativity" many claimed. The way to write a story was to create a character, start them out in trouble and kind of follow them around as they had neat adventures. What it took years to realize was that my characters had great adventures and it was kind of fun following them around...until somewhere between pages eight and twenty when they would peter out. I had a drawerful of some of the best starts of stories you ever saw. Problem was, they never went anywhere. And most of them never came close to an ending. Oh, a few did, the really short ones. There were even one or two that came to a respectable length...after rewriting them twenty times.
            What I didn't realize for the longest time was that writing involves the processing and integration of large blocks of trivial bits of information. As the length of my stories grew, so did the complexity. All of a sudden, I was on page thirteen and I suddenly remembered I couldn't have my character chase the bad guy...because on page two I'd given him bronchia asthma. I had to go back and "cure" him. What I didn't realize was something pretty obvious. A story, like the life it represents, is basically complex. Stories aren't built like a line of dominoes, it more resembles a web, and when you tug a bit harder on one of its many strands, the whole business vibrates. And changes shape. Not only did I have to remember the many details and their connections, I had to keep them in a logical order. Virtually impossible.
            I even managed to write several books in this manner. Looking back on those days I cringe. What an awful lot of energy I needlessly wasted!
            Here was my typical process. I bet at least some of you have gone through the same procedure. I'd get a great idea, so great that I'd have to drop the baby if I was holding him, and fly to my typewriter. (Remember - this was in the days of yore when they had those ancient artifacts...) As fast as my fingers could fly, I'd write. A hundred words would accumulate. Then, two hundred. Then...well, then I began to run into problems.
            Something I did in the first hundred words didn't quite fit with the three hundredth, but I wasn't quite sure what it was. Something was just "off". It would bother and confuse me, but I didn't want to deal with it. So, I'd push on, fix it later, whatever it was. Just get the stuff out, in the white heat of creativity. That's what rewriting was for, right? To fix stuff that didn't fit.
            Only now the writing really slowed. The next fifty words were the hardest. I was running out of steam. The idea I'd begun with seemed stale, trite. If I could even remember the original idea. Crap! I'd say, finally, slamming shut the typewriter case. Maybe tomorrow the Muse would redescend...
            Hardly ever happened. On the morrow, a new idea would strike, with the same kind of heat as the first one and I'd be off and running with that one.
            With the same results.
            In no time at all, I had boxes of unfinished stories. Sound familiar?
            Well, I learned a trick. I won't go through the whole sorry history of how I wasted time and learned, little by little, to work smarter. What happened, after many centuries (well, it seems like that now) was that I began kind of jotting down a half page of notes. I even began figuring out my endings before I began.
            Now I began to finish stories. Not a lot, but a lot more than I had previously. After a couple of years of this, I began to expand my notes. Never once did I think of what I was doing as "outlining." There weren't any Roman numeral. How could that be an outline?
            And then...one day I got one of those Joycean epiphanies. What I was doing was an outline! But, these weren't outlines like Missus Grundy had us doing back in P.S. 121. These were just notes. Notes kind of organized. And I discovered something else. Those old writers were liars. Hemingway, Steinbeck and Shakespeare - they all claimed they didn't outline, but they had to. Their stuff all held the kind of integrity that only comes in thinking through a project first before you pick up the saw. They just said they didn't outline. All of a sudden, I knew better. Those guys probably didn't think they outlined either. I doubt if any of them had Roman numerals on their notes either. I'd bet money they had notes, though, and copious notes...and copious notes organized into some kind of system. Before they ever picked up the ol' writing quill and wrote "Chapter One". Probably what a lot of them did was write a first draft...and then used that for their "outline". Without calling it that, of course, or even thinking of it in that way. I bet that's what they did though. They weren't any different than I was. Or you. If any writer begins their story without knowing precisely where they're going, any mistakes they make at first, any tiny omissions, take on added significance as he or she proceeds. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially. Fact of life. The writing life anyway.
            If one is muleheaded enough, a story can be bulled through without outlining. Even fairly long stories. It's kind of a masochistic exercise though. It may take twenty, even thirty rewrites to get a decent story that way.
            Don't ask me how I know this. I'll begin crying. I'll have to. My wife knows I recall experiences like this and keeps all the sharp instruments locked up.
            Novels are the worst experience in the world without an outline. After you spend several years learning to juggle thousands of details in your head - you can get pretty good at it - you can write longer and longer material. Except, that no matter how good you get at retaining all this stuff in your head, you'll probably end up stuck on about page ninety. That seems to be the magic length for novels. Not quite long enough by about threee hundred pages. Short stories seem to peter out around between pages six to eight.
            If you've got an outline you just don't have these problems. Stuck? Glance up at your outline and instantly you'll be reminded where you are in the story and your perspective will return. The dizzy feeling will recede.
            Okay. Sales pitch for outlines over. I learned my technique from taking screenplay writing classes. Those guys always outline. That's how they can write scripts so quickly. I took a class in this program with Martin Goldstein and I wrote a 108-page script in two days. And Mr. Goldstein says it's a great script - has attached himself to it as the producer and not only that - this "two-day" script was just named a semifinalist in the Academy Foundation's Nicholl’s Fellowships in Screenwriting awards. Not bad for two days work! I wrote the first 64 pages in about eight hours and the remaining 44 pages in about ten hours. Piece of cake. Of course, I spent about a week and a half on the outline. I do write quickly, so don't use my times as a model. Without an outline, I'd still be writing...
            Let's get to these puppies. Here's how you create an outline for your story. Ready?
            1. You make notes to yourself as you imagine the story played out.
            2. You arrange those notes.
            3. As the writing proceeds, you refer to them.
            That's it.
            There's a bit more to it, but really, that's 90% of outlining. First, you have to remember that a short story or a novel is drama. Knowing that, know also that nothing destroys drama more than logic. The dramatic story, because its purpose is to represent life (not mirror it), is not logical at all. It is, instead, psychological, and the outline must match this. It must be a complication-resolution outline. That's the way stories are written.

            The outline I propose you try consists of five simple statements that describe the major actions through which the story will be told. One statement for each major focus. And each statement will be short, consisting only of two to three words. A human noun, a strong, concrete action verb, and (most of the time) a direct object. (We won't count articles such as "a", "an", and "the" as words.) The simpler an outline is the more it focuses on the important relationships in your story. Words actually count for more in an outline than in the story. An outline like I'm proposing will probably have no more than fifteen words in it. In a story, the almost-right word can sometimes suffice, but in an outline, it has to be the perfect word. Another difference between this version of an outline and the ones Missus Grundy had you do is that the statements in her outlines represented topic sentences and as such specify what comes at the beginning of the section they represent. That's because in logical writing, the writer states her premise first and then develops it.
            In dramatic stories, however, the dramatic action that makes your point comes at the end of each section - where climaxes belong. What this means is that your outline statements represent endings, not beginnings. This is an important point to keep in mind.
            I'm going to use my own story I Shoulda Seen a Credit Arranger in my collection titled "Monday's Meal" to illustrate a typical outline. I also wrote a novel with the same story as well as a screenplay, both titled THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING. The same outline for all three forms. The first statement will be:
            Complication or inciting incident:
                        Debt endangers Pete (This is the complication that provides the occasion for the story. Every story must have an inciting incident to kick-start it. Something must happen that changes the protagonist's world and by doing so, creates a problem/goal. This is where stories must begin - not with setting or backstory. Act I, as it were.)
            Development: (This is the second part of the outline. The development steps that lead to the resolution. Act II, as it were, following Aristotle's Poetics)
                        1.Pete agrees to kidnapping
                        2. Pete and Tommy botch kidnapping
                        3. Pete escapes
            Resolution: (This is the third and final step. Act III.)
                        Pete loses everything but matures

            This came to sixteen words, two over the optimim. (Remember, we don’t count articles as words in this exercise.) If you're under twenty, you're fine. Once I have this outline, the rest is just filling in the blanks. But, everything in the story must contribute to the outline. I can't, for instance, begin the story by talking about Pete's childhood in New Orleans, for example.
            Now. Look at the elements. There's each of the three things I said should be in the outline. A human noun, a strong, concrete action verb, and a direct object. I didn't, for instance, say "Pete is in debt" for my complication. Why? Because is is a static verb. Always think in straightforward active terms.
            You might also notice I didn't have a happy-sappy "Hollywood" ending. Those don't work in literature. They work (I guess) in direct-to-video movies (and more than a few that we see at the theater) and in self-published novels, but not in quality fiction, and that's what we're interested in here, I assume. A good ending has both a win and a loss for the protagonist.
            Doesn't look much like Missus Grundy's Roman numeral outline, does it? But, if you read the story and then compare it to the outline, you'll see it's all there. And it allows for you to roam and be creative within the story. You just have to remain within the strictures of the outline. But, there's a heck of a lot of freedom there! I have three forms of this story—a short story, a novel, and a screenplay which was a finalist in the Nicholl’s Awards. I used the same outline for all three forms, which were all different in length and in material.
            What this kind of outline does is force you to think through the story before you write it. You spot problems before you waste two hundred or two thousand (or more) words on them. Suddenly, writing becomes a breeze. It really does.
            In the story above, the definition of a story is adhered to. A story consists of a character in trouble - has a need, wants something, etc. A story always begins with the inciting incident--whatever happens to drastically change the protagonist's world and create a problem for him or her (it has to be the biggest problem in his/her life at that point and one the reader will deem worthy enough to follow him in solving it, reaching his/her goal). Pete's in trouble--he owes a lot of money to a nasty bookie who has just issued him an ultimatum. He has to do something about it. He does get tricked by Tommy into an ill-fated kidnapping, but once he's in it, he begins to take his own action. You can have coincidence or fate in a story, but it should never be a coincidence that helps the main character. It can appear at first to do so, but it never really can. It must always hinder the character. And stories are drama, which means you must create scenes, not wander around inside the head of the character, and scenes are by definition, action. There must be dramatic action. Also, a protagonist may be reactive at first to the inciting incident, but very quickly he or she must become proactive, acting on his or her own behalf to solve the problem, gain the goal, etc. Reactive characters (characters to whom things "happen" in which they spend their time on stage reacting to those things) are boring and don't belong in good fiction. That represents episodic stories and there’s no market for those. And lastly, because of an action the protagonist takes, there must come a reversal and a change in the character. What Joyce called an "epiphany.” Characters in fiction, must, as a result of the actions of the story, become profoundly changed from the person they were at the beginning of the story. Also, the character can't just think through the problem, although obviously, that can be a part of his epiphany, but it has to be occasioned by an action that he can then process internally. The epiphany also cannot be attained through a conversation with another character. There has to be an actual action which changes him and turns the story. Once that happens, the story is over. Get out. Start a new story. But first create an outline for it. You'll thank yourself.
            Once you've created an outline, it's almost impossible to stray in the wrong direction. If you find yourself doing that, just glance at the outline and get back on the right road. If the story takes a turn you didn’t expect and that you feel will make a better story, no problem. Simply take a few minutes and create a new outline. You’ll be glad you did.

            For the first week, part of your assignment is to create an outline for your story, using the example above. No more than twenty words. Use human nouns, strong action verbs and a direct object (direct object optional). Then, begin your story, following the outline (which means to begin with the inciting incident and that written as a scene). Send us 2-5 pages of the story.

Can’t wait to see your work!

Blue skies,
Les



PROPER FORMAT
            It’s extremely important to follow proper formatting whenever you’re presenting work to a professional. A writer may be the rankest beginner in the world and have a long way to go before producing publishable quality work, but there’s simply no excuse for not at least looking professional. Work presented with improper formatting is the first thing that will force the teacher, editor, agent or any professional to dismiss the writing. The thing is, it’s extremely easy to use proper formatting that follows accepted usages by professionals, so there’s really no reason not to employ it, right?

It’s very simple. Here are the basic rules:

1. Double-space. Manuscripts are always double-spaced. One of the reasons is, it’s easier for the people who read millions of words each year to read work that has plenty of white space. It also leaves room for editors to make comments on the mss itself. Finally, it tells the reader how many words are in the mss.

2. Margins. All four margins should be set at at least 1 inch. This is usually the default setting of most word processing programs. This creates attractive white space, gives the editor a clear idea of how many words are in the mss, and leaves room for notations.

3. Font. It used to be that there were two acceptable fonts, Courier New and Times New Roman. Both set at 12 pt. While there are still a few publishers who will accept Courier New, most now insist on TNR. (Plus, CN is one ugly font!). There are several logical reasons for this. One, again—along with the proper margins, and line spacing, by using TNR set at 12 pts, this instantly tells the editor how many words are in the document. For those who think they look at computer word counts… wrong-o! Those are notoriously wrong for editor’s purposes. In fact, never put a word count or an estimated word count on the mss—it’s a sure sign that here’s an amateur at work. (Same with copyright symbols.). Different fonts will deliver differing numbers of words per page. TNR tells the editor that there will be an average of 250 words per page. They can instantly look at page count and know how many words there are in the entire mss. And, this is important! All editors have space requirements for their publications, whether it’s a short story magazine or a novel publisher. They need to know up front how many words are in the mss as the first requirement in their decision to publish or not.

Often, the writer still using Courier New is a screenwriter and that’s the only font allowed in screenplays. That writer is used to it and it feels and looks comfortable and most know that it’s one of the two fonts stated as allowable in fiction, so they use it. While it’s still technically okay to use it, I’d strongly urge even the screenwriters not to use it in their fiction. More and more publishers are stating they don’t want to see work in it any longer.

The primary reason editors insist on a particular font however, is simply because of the amount of reading they do in their job. Many fonts are extremely hard on the eyes and create headaches and eyestrain. The culprit usually is the serifs in some fonts. Serifs are those descenders in the letters y, g, j, p, q. In many fonts, the descenders are truncated and stubby, causing the eye to kind of “bump along” when reading the text. This causes eyestrain and even severe headaches to professionals who read all day long. The descenders in TNR are long and reading work in that font allows the eye to travel smoothly, avoiding those problems. Makes sense, eh?

4. Unjustified right margins. Do not send in work with justified right margins! It’s the job of the editor to create a justified margin for print—not the author’s. Again, a mss with justified margins throws off accurate word counts. Plus, it’s a sure sign of an amateur at work and you don’t want to ever give that impression.

5. One space between sentences. About 40-50 years ago, it was proper to use two spaces between sentences. That was in the typewriter days. Since computers came on the scene, it’s now one space. The kernaling is different for computer-generated material than it is for typewriters. This is a glaring amateur mistake and all editors cringe when they see a mss with two spaces between sentences. (And, it’s easy to spot.) This signals strongly that this is a writer who hasn’t kept up with current usages. A writer who hasn’t learned that two spaces between sentences went away many decades ago, is going to be assumed to be a writer who hasn’t kept up with the even more important conventions of fiction and his/her work is probably going to receive short shrift when encountered. Remember, even if you are a beginner, there’s no reason to look like one! Strive always to appear professional even if you haven’t yet published. It shows respect for both the professional you’re submitting to and it also shows respect for yourself and your work.

6. No bolding in manuscripts.

7. No underlining in manuscripts. Back before computers, underlining indicated to the typesetter that the underlined material was to be set in italics. Well, today we have… italics… right on our ‘puters, so you simply use… italics.

8. No ALL CAPS for emphasis. This is considered email language and isn’t acceptable. Use italics to show emphasis. This is slowly changing as younger, less well-educated (okay, so that was my own editorial comment…) editors come into the picture and grew up with email language. But, use it at your own peril, for if your work comes before a traditionalist, which it likely will, a red flag will go up and you don’t want that.

9. Mark space breaks. The accepted method is to mark them with stars, centered. Like
***
this… Space breaks are only used to signal significant changes in the narrative, such as a major break in time or a pov change. One mistake I see commonly is that writers provide extra spaces before and after the space break. Like

***

this… There aren’t any extra line spaces. When you finish the material to be separated, simply hit “Enter,” center the stars, and hit Enter and begin typing the next paragraph. It’s very important to mark space breaks since if you don’t, during ensuing edits, an unmarked break can easily “disappear” if it ends up at the top or bottom of a page. Even if that doesn’t happen in your own copy, since today we usually send electronic files of our work to editors, they’ll often work on it and it can disappear for them since it wasn’t marked.

One usage is totally verboten! The practice seen sometimes of separating each paragraph by a space break. The famous writer Lorrie Moore began using this as her stylistic “footprint” and that means that now no one else can do the same or else they’ll come across as imitative or derivative of Ms. Moore. Just like one can’t use no caps, ala e.e. cummings, or else be viewed as unimaginative and basically a bad copycat. Although, Charles Bukowski exchewed capitalization in much of his work and no one accused him of copyitis, but then perhaps they’d seen the movie Barfly and just didn’t want to anger him…

Some ebooks are formatted lazily or incorrectly and you’ll see paragraphs separated like this and it drives me nuts! Just sloppiness on the part of the publisher. It’s fine in a blog or a handout like this, but not in fiction.

10. Don’t use drop caps or other stylistic elements you see in printed work. These are editor’s choices and not the author’s. Don’t try to imitate what you see in published work. Simply create documents according to the guidelines set out here. I’ve had writers send me work where the first three or four words were in all caps, and I asked them what in the heck were they thinking and they said they’d seen a novel that way in the bookstore. They didn’t understand that’s an editor’s purview and never the writer’s. Don’t make those amateurish mistakes!

11. There are some usages you may not be aware of that have changed. For a big one, today there are two punctuations that are frowned upon in fiction. Colons and semicolons. These days, they’re considered archaic punctuations. That’s because fiction is becoming more and more informal and colons and semicolons are fairly formal punctuations—especially colons. They have the effect of slightly interrupting the fictive dream by drawing attention to themselves. Today, we use the em dash instead. It’s less formal and therefore less intrusive on the read. About the only people still using colons and semicolons (an occasional semicolon is still okay), are brand names, some journalists, and writers from a different culture (such as Canadians, for example). And, older writers who haven’t kept up with current usages. They’re still used in nonfiction writing—just not in fiction much these days. Many times people resist these changes. It’s often difficult to change. But, a professional writer has to adapt. We work in the English language, which is a living, mutating language and things change constantly. It’s to our benefit to keep up with those changes and be able to adapt.

12. Multiple punctuations. As a rule (there are exceptions) it’s considered amateurish to use multiple punctuation, such as more than one exclamation point for emphasis—like this!!!! Or, to use two different ending punctuations, like this!? They’re considered “cutesy” and too precious to be believed… Although, there are occasionally exceptions to this.

13. Other punctuations. An ellipsis in dialog signals a pause or a trailing off in the speech. An em dash ending dialog signals an interruption in the speech, usually by another speaker.

There are a few other usages but I’ll wait to point them out as and if they occur. Hope this helps! The main point is to always submit your work in a professional format. Please. It shows you respect your work as well as the reader and that invites the professional to respect it also.

Blue skies,
Les

Available for preorder--Comes out November 17.