Writing Outside the Lines

I like writing outlines. Putting facts in order appeals to my sense of, well, order. I didn’t always feel that way, however. In school, I thought they were one of those evil necessities. I always knew what I wanted to write, so why did I need to write about what I wanted to write? Why did I need a plan for something that had already formed in my head and might possibly escape while I wasted time not writing it?

Then, of course, I’d sit down to write the thing and somewhere along the line, I would stop short, realizing I had left something out. Being a less than perfect student (lazy), I usually skipped that bit. Hey, if it hadn’t woven itself into the truth I spilled across the page, it wasn’t important, right?

Wrong. But not really, really wrong.

I didn’t use an outline when planning Less Than Perfect. I just sat down and started writing. I’d had Mickey’s voice in my head for a while and the first sentence of the novella was solid. The first paragraph, even. I knew who she was and what she wanted. Five furious days later, I had a story. Then the real work began.  My first round of edits had me rewriting the entire story—but not because I had failed to plan. More, I had submitted an idea that an editor liked and, in turn, she sent me her idea of what my story could be, and so on. So, in essence, my first draft was my outline.

Generally, I do use outlines for my fiction projects. I don’t always adhere to them with fervent fanaticism, but putting down even a few points is a great way to build upon an idea, turn it into a story. Ideas are easy, stories…not so much. Often, when I’m outlining, I’ll discover a potential side plot or a secondary character. I’m not sure how relevant either would have been to my school projects, but they’re both invaluable to stories. I love side plots. I love the something that happens on the way to something, particularly if it’s somehow, secretly related to the something. Still following me?

Yes, I just spent five minutes charting this for you.
Yep, I just spent five minutes charting this for you.

An outline can also reveal the primary plot. What, I didn’t have that to begin with? No. I knew that the moon stopped moving one night, and I had a good idea how folks would react to that, but did I know why the moon was stuck in the sky? Nope. Not yet.

Despite my love of outlines, some of my best writing has happened outside the lines. When that happens, when a chapter just writes itself, or a character walks into your book, sits down and says “I’m here!” it’s like stumbling over an epiphany. These are the chapters and events that somehow make the story. They happen when a character steps outside the shell you created for him or her and tells you what they need to do. Or when a villain refuses to die…or when the evil twin you barely fleshed out because they were (conveniently) going to take the fall for your hero in chapter seventeen, develops a complex personality, motivation and a need to redeem himself.

Yep, I’ve had that happen.

I’ve also killed people I thought would make it to the end, and, as Jenn Burke will likely remember, some characters get dug up just so they can be killed all over again. (Poor Marcus.)

One of the joys of writing, outline or no, is when you reach that point—where your imagination takes over and your fingers merely become tools and the keyboard a conduit. When the story writes itself, inside the lines and outside, when the characters voices are louder than those of the people in the real world. When the outcome becomes so important, little things like dinner and bills and whatever the TV is yelling about just fade, fade away.

That’s when the stories outgrow their outlines and become real, breathing things.

(And you thought me charting a whole lot of nothing was weird. Finally, yes, I coloured the dinosaur I used as my featured image for this post.)

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