THE JOYS OF OUTLINING by Jeanne Matthews
I. My husband has threatened to leave me unless I learn how to outline.
A. He is fed up with being waked up in the middle of the night with me wailing,
B. He is tired of me whimpering that I’ve painted myself into a corner and asking him what a sane person would do in such dire circumstances.
II. His answer is always the same.
A. “It’s your own damned fault. You should outline.”
B. Or sometimes, “You’re nuts to launch into a novel blind, not knowing whodunit or why or where the action will lead.”
1. Well, duh. Who could disagree with that? There is no logic to sending one’s characters onto the page without a clear notion of what lies in store for them.
a. They could end up stranded and clueless in chapter 2.
b. They could end up in literary purgatory.
c. They could end up in the wastebasket.
d. It is against the rules of outlining to write complete sentences, but how else is it going to make sense?
2. It is also a no-no to use single sub-points, but I couldn’t think of another point of equal importance to number 1, above. Outlining is a very demanding form.
III. Neither threats nor logic have reformed me or inspired me to learn the skill.
A. Maybe it’s a perverse reaction to lists and Roman numerals.
B. Maybe it’s some deep-seated guilt complex that makes me want to punish myself.
C. Maybe I can only think in complete sentences and unequal sub-points.
D. Or maybe it’s a glitch in my anterior cingulated cortex that renders me incapable of planning ahead.
E. Whatever it is, I fly by the seat of my pants when writing a novel and, like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t know what I think ‘til I see what I say.
IV. I may not know exactly what will happen when I begin one of my Dinah Pelerin mysteries, but I always know where it will happen. Dinah’s plane always lands in the place where Jeanne wants to spend her next summer vacation and my stories evolve out of the physical and political environments of the places in which they’re set.
A. In BONES OF CONTENTION, I plopped Dinah down in the middle of the Northern Territory of Australia for a reunion with her criminally minded family where she learned about Aboriginal art and the Aussie lingo called Strine.
B. In BET YOUR BONES, I sent her to the Big Island of Hawaii for the wedding of her best friend where she was forced to learn about land laws affecting the disinterment of old bones.
C. And in my latest book, BONEREAPERS, I dispatched Dinah to Norway, the Land of the Midnight Sun to the Svalbard “Doomsday” Seed Vault in the Norwegian Arctic. It’s a kind of Noah’s Ark for seeds, designed to protect the planet’s agricultural diversity from
1. Rising seas;
2. Hurtling asteroids;
3. Disease pandemics;
4. Nuclear holocaust;
5. And the degradations of Time, itself, for the next 10,000 years.
V. Ha! And they said the Titanic was unsinkable.
A. Can the vault protect the seeds from human greed and mismanagement?
B. Are the seeds vulnerable to corporate breeders intent upon
1. Manipulating their DNA?
2. Patenting the hybrids as their exclusive intellectual property?
3. Rendering the seeds sterile so that they will not reproduce and farmers will be forced to purchase them over and over again at the start of each new planting season?
4. Creating a “death gene” that will cross-pollinate and destroy all the earth’s agricultural crops?
VI. With the world’s agricultural heritage at stake, the vault seemed an ideal spot for a murder.
A. It is remote.
1. Six hundred miles from the North Pole.
2. Yada yada yada.
B. It is frigid.
1. Temperatures seldom rise above zero.
C. It is bleak.
1. Especially during the long Polar Night.
2. There are more polar bears than people.
a. A lot more.
VII. Hey, honey! Are you asleep? Wake up! I’ve got a great idea for my next book!
A. The island of Samos.
1. It would be a beautiful spot for a murder.
a. It’s warm.
b. It has over 300 days of sunshine a year.
i. It’s in Greece, you know?
ii. I don’t know who’s going to be murdered yet. I’ll think of something. I’ve already got the title. HER BOYFRIEND’S BONES. What do you think?
VIII. Good grief! Why are you so grouchy? Oh, stuff it!
A. People who are reckless enough to marry a fiction writer assume a certain amount of risk and sleeplessness.
B. And come on admit it. The travel benefits can’t be beat.
Aside from being hilarious, your piece has reminded me of my own adventures with outlining. My thesis professor demanded one for my dissertation. Now, you and I know that
I. You don't start out knowing the end
A. You need to translate everything in a foreign language
1. You need to brush up on your French, German, Italian, Spanish and Five Kinds of Greek
2. Especially Five Kinds of Greek
B. You need to read ten million, three hundred and twenty-seven books and articles
1. Mostly in Foreign Languages
2. See item A2
III. In order to do the Research, you must find stuff on five floors in the Library
A. It’s a Plot
B. But very good exercise if you Use the Stairs
IV. You need to buy the latest Greek-English Dictionary
A. Otherwise, you can’t read the material in Greek Scholarly Journals
B. Which before the Sixties, was written in a made-up Scholarly Version of Greek
1. Called Katherevousa
2. Not used anywhere else except warning signs
a. Like “Don’t Spit on the Third Rail”
b. And “Don’t Touch the Artifacts.”
C. So the New Dictionary doesn’t help much
V. And you have to Make Something Up
A. Without Research, this is Difficult
B. You do it anyway
|Aunt Nan Herself|
VI. You write a Perfect Outline
A. Which is probably totally Bogus
a. As your research will later prove
b. But what the Hell, you wrote Something
B. And it was Plausible
VII. You turn it in.
VIII. And then, the Professor “Loses It”
A. You know he had “Lost It” long ago
B. . You give him the only carbon copy
a. It was a mistake, because
b. He lost that, too
IX. Which almost cost you your T.A. because you were not making “Satisfactory Progress”
A. Luckily, the Prof had a reputation for Losing It.
B. So you keep the T.A. and wish you could lose the Professor
X. And in the end, the Dissertation conclusion is Nothing Like the Outline
A. But it is still Accepted
B. And thank Heavens! No more OUTLINES!