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The Utility (and Trappings) of the Novel Outline

I’ve been selling books for more than fifteen years and learning to write novels even longer. Of all the author readings and Q&A sessions I’ve hosted (and attended), one of the most common questions among beginning writers, even curious readers, is this: Do you start with an outline?

You’ve heard the pros and cons. An outline helps organize your thoughts and prevents you from spinning your wheels and traveling down dead-end storylines. The flipside, of course, is that constructing an outline boxes you in and limits the possibility of discovery, which is the most creative and rewarding part of writing.

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Column by Jamie Kornegay, author of SOIL, to be released March 10,
2015, from Simon & Schuster. The book, a combination of literary suspense
and Southern gothic, was called "gripping" and "haunting" by Kirkus Reviews.
He lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he runs an independent bookstore,
Turnrow Book Co. Connect with him on Twitter -- @JamieKornegay.

First, it’s important to note that there are no ironclad rules to novel writing. Every writer works differently and stumbles upon his or her preferred method through trial and error. The novel, rather than writing advisers, should tell you what it needs.

The traditional term paper outline, with its Roman numerals and letters, is helpful to organize a finite amount of information, but a novel is more amorphous. I couldn’t begin to collect a novel’s potential in an outline, though I certainly understand the impulse. There’s something terrifying about the blank page and its stark white emptiness. What could you put there that anyone would want to read?

It’s only natural that a writer would wish to escape such a daunting task. If an outline is a way to get the paper dirty, then go for it. Just remember that those first scratchings are exploration. Don’t lock yourself into a story that you haven’t discovered through hard work. The wheel-spinning and dead ends and wasted time are part of discovering what your book is about, and if you bypass that, you’re opting for ease and convenience over depth of storytelling. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

After the spark of an idea, the fuel for your story is character. If you don’t yet know the character as intimately as you know your best friends, then how can you decide what that character will do when matched with the conflicts of the novel?

While imagining your characters, you will naturally develop scenes and storylines and bits of history. Once these begin to accumulate, then you have something to attach to an outline. For me, an outline is an expression of the novel’s structure, which gradually reveals itself, like hacking a totem out of simple log.

My first published novel, Soil, began like many other books – with a single image. I was driving past flooded farmland and saw a stump sticking out of the muck. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was a corpse. What if it had been? That would be a nightmare to deal with. I began to imagine a landowner happening upon the body, growing scared and paranoid. He might worry about becoming a suspect. What if he didn’t tell anyone, just got rid of it? How would he cover it up completely, taking every precaution so that no trace of it would be discovered? This kind of morbid daydreaming is the stuff of novels.

I reasoned out creative answers to my own tough questions. I slowly began to understand the main character, his motivations and obsessions. I wrote wasted pages and dead ends galore. Eventually I found the right path. I could feel the story gaining traction as new characters arrived and ideas poured forth. It was time to make the outline.

I kept my outline informal, intuitive. I used the outline almost like flypaper to trap scenes and ideas that were coming quicker than words, as my characters were finally alive and could make their own decisions about the story.

The outline helped me negotiate the tricky framework of Soil, which is told somewhat out of sequence. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. The structure came out of a desire to maintain that initial sense of mystery I felt after discovering the “body” in the field, all the hows and whys and the slow discovery of my characters’ secrets and motivations.

The novel is divided into five sections comprised of several chapters each. Each section opens with a strange, hopefully compelling episode, and then goes back in time to reveal how the characters reached this point. I thought this looping effect generated a nice suspense, and it also informed the deeper themes of Soil, specifically the cycles of nature and our inevitable return to the earth. If I did my job right, then the complicated structure should not present a stumbling block to the reader. It took careful planning, and my own specially designed outline.

The book I’m currently working on has a linear structure, told over the course of a week. Each chapter is a day, and understanding that from the outset allows me to work out of sequence easily, depending on what inspiration strikes me or what I find during my day-to-day life to steal and apply to the novel.

Just remember that an outline shouldn’t decide the story, your characters do that. An outline is where you string up the pieces to see the big picture and make your novel as a coherent whole.

This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

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