January 27, 2014

To Outline or Not

By H.W.“Buzz” Bernard

A question I often hear asked of novelists, at least by other writers, is whether they outline before beginning to hammer out a manuscript. Or, do they just sit down, an idea aborning in their mind, and began to craft their tale?

The majority of authors, it seems, develop some sort of outline. I say, “Some sort,” because there is no standardized style of outline. It’s basically whatever the writer feels comfortable with, whatever gets the job done.

Outline types range from perhaps a single page of scribbled notes to what sounds to me like an excruciatingly detailed delineation: a one- or two-page synopsis for each chapter. Again, there’s no style guide here, no right or wrong way of doing things. If it works for you, it’s the right way.

What works for me is to get down a couple of pages of thoughts, including major turning points, key scenes and the conclusion--or at least where I’d like to end up. In my most recent novel, Supercell, I had two alternate endings in mind and really didn’t know which would work best until I got there.

You see, an outline for me is just a guide. I know I must get from Point A to Point B, but I don’t know howuntil I start writing. The characters and circumstances dictate my route. That, to me, is the fun of crafting fiction. As Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

To draw a military analogy to outlining, I view an outline as a strategic plan, the big picture. I execute the plan through a series of tactics: my writing. And like any military plan, it begins to fall apart as soon as I squeeze off the first round, that is, type the first word.

As necessary, I go back and amend the plan. I change the outline. It’s a “living document” that evolves through an iterative process. The outline guides my writing, but my writing may feed back into changing the outline. This may happen once or many times over the course of cranking out a manuscript.

Once, I did try to march off on a literary journey without an outline. Other people, I knew, had done it successfully. Why not me? Well, it turned out I have no sense of dead reckoning. After about a hundred pages (roughly 25,000 words), I found myself hopelessly lost in a jungle of blind trails, dead ends and improbable plot twists.

My only salvation was to sacrifice my baby to the slashing teeth of a black paper shredder and allow native beaters to lead me, whimpering, to safety.

I now am a dedicated outliner.

H. W. “Buzz” Bernard is a writer, retired Weather Channel senior meteorologist for 13 years. He served as a weather officer in the U.S. Air Force for over three decades.  He attained the rank of colonel and received, among other awards, the Legion of Merit. His “airborne” experiences include a mission with the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters, air drops over the Arctic Ocean and Turkey, and a stint as a weather officer aboard a Tactical Air Command airborne command post (C-135). In the past, he’s provided field support to forest fire fighting operations in the Pacific Northwest, spent a summer working on Alaska’s arctic slope, chased tornadoes on the Great Plains, and served two tours in Vietnam.  Various other jobs, both civilian and military, have taken him to Germany, Saudi Arabia and Panama. A native Oregonian he attended the University of Washington in Seattle where he earned a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science; he also studied creative writing. Buzz currently is vice president of the Southeastern Writers Association.  He’s a member of International Thriller Writers, the Atlanta Writers Club and Willamette Writers. He and his wife Christina live in Roswell, Georgia, along with their fuzzy and sometimes overactive Shih-Tzu, Stormy.  Stormy’s namesake appears in SupercellHis debut novel is, Eyewall followed by Plague and his third novel, Supercell is now available.

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