Thursday, December 23, 2010

To outline or not to outline

I've been asked a number of times, especially by newer writers, if I used an outline. For short stories the answer is simple ~ no. For novels my answer is, well, kinda sorta. When I start a novel, I'm usually (note the usually) sure of two things ~ how I want it to begin and how I want it to end. The real challenge is being able to connect the two with around 300 pages.

When I began writing Silent Kill I did not use an outline. But for each character in the book, I did use a character sketch sheet. I highly recommend this to everyone writing a novel. (For anyone interested in seeing what my sketch sheet looks like, let me know by leaving a comment and I'll gladly email you one.) These not only give you a physical description of each character, but also their history and how they think. I even have character sketches for people who got left on the cutting room floor (or more accurately, erased from the computer). Who knows? They might just turn up again in another book. Unfortunately, one thing the character sketches don't do is follow a plot line.

It's a giant milestone to finish a first draft. Don't ever take anything away from that. But after the celebration is done the second phase begins ~ editing.  About halfway through while reading the first draft, I realized that some things made no sense. I had done a major screwup on a timeline. One character was worried about the kidnapped victim before they should have realized the person had been kidnapped.  Oops. Do you think anyone would notice? I thought a reader or two might. It took a lot of major rewriting. One thing that helped was I went back and wrote a very brief (two to three sentence) synopsis of every chapter. Besides rewriting, I also did a lot of cutting and pasting.

(Here's a little inside trivia about Silent Kill. For those of you who have read it, you'll notice every chapter starts with the day and time.  Yes ~ I do believe it adds to the dramatic effect, but the real reason I did that was to help me keep the timeline in tact.)

I learned a valuable lesson ~ make an outline! I did just that for the sequel, Playing the Hand She's Dealt (soon to be released by L&L Dreamspell). Things went fine for the first two chapters. After that I started to veer off the path. Not a big problem and to be expected. But then new characters started popping up, some of them major players. Other than the ending stayed the same, there were no similarities between where I was going and my original outline. By chapter five I disregarded the outline and came up with a solution that worked perfect for me. I went back to what I did in Silent Kill and wrote a mini-synopsis of each chapter while I went. This way it held the plot together and I was free to take it in any direction my warped thought processes desired.

I have talked to some authors who live by the outline. When they veer off their original path, they have no problem adjusting the outline. I've talked to a couple others who freestyle it all the way through. More power to all of them. For me, a mini-synopsis for each chapter while I go works perfect.

What works best for you?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

You've Been Punked

For me, Peter Joseph Swanson’s latest novel, Punk Minneapolis, hits very close to home. It takes place in 1989 on my old stomping grounds ~ the Uptown area of south Minneapolis. Okay, I was never really a true punker (more new wave), never wore a Mohawk, and by ’89 I had settled down. It was more my stomping ground in the early to mid 80s. But the images and people Swanson conjured up brought back a lot of memories. He realistically captured the time and atmosphere beautifully.
Raven, Becky, Sandra, and Mark are high school grads working in a pizza joint. Beer is their God. Constantly telling each other how cool they are, their insecurities shine, like if they say that they’re cool often enough, maybe they’ll even convince themselves. Raven dreams of making a mummy movie for public access cable. He hopes that Tope, the coolest punker around, will write and sing the music. Becky’s dream is to make Tope hers. All four are hyped to go to the Rooster Party, the coolest a once-a-year party located at a secret destination.
Hi Tope!” Then Becky quickly looked on the floor in concern to make sure none of her fake hair parts had fallen out where she could see. She tried to arch her back to make her female form push against the front of her shirt, but she looked unnaturally stiff about it.
“Eh!” He regarded her shirt anyway. p.24

Raven nervously pulled on his long black ponytail. “Did you write a cool mummy song for my movie?”
Tope cringed condescendingly. “Are you sure you’re going to make that movie? Really? Or just talk about it all night long at Embers like all the other poseurs just talk talk talk about how cool they all are?” pp. 25 & 26
Punk Minneapolis reads a lot like a slice of life of these characters. The plot is loosely based around their daily lives ~ and their days are very entertaining. There are also a number of supernatural instances thrown in ~ or are there? Swanson masterfully crafts each instance so they could be otherworldly or drug hallucinations, or maybe a little bit of both.
She wasn’t there for real, of course, it was some sort of hallucination or something, but I saw her face in my window. And then I saw her a little later on the street walking toward my place and she didn’t act guilty, so I think she was having an out of body thing, if she was doing it. But I don’t know. How would I know? How does one know things like that?” p. 101
Overall, Punk Minneapolis is a very enjoyable read. This is Uptown as it was in 1989. Ex-punkers, especially those who lived in Minneapolis, are going to appreciate this book. I guarantee it will bring back memories. For those that weren’t, it’s still a fun read of teenage angst mixed with punk humor. If you were a “yuppie f*cker,” you probably won’t like it ~ be prepared to be insulted – a lot. The characters can be a bit stupid and snotty at times, and hard to sympathize with as they can equally be caring and giving at others. But thinking back to when I was that age, that’s exactly what we were like.
My favorite line in the book (which pretty much wraps it all up): “Just because you’re all anarchists doesn’t mean you can’t all work together.” p 198