by Zoë Sharp
This week, besides getting some much needed construction work done on the garage – smashing out old window frames out with a brick bolster and a lump hammer is so therapeutic – I’ve been Outlining.
Producing an outline for a book not yet written is a contentious point with writers. Some people sneer at the very idea that you can plan a book in any kind of detail before you start. It ruins the spontaneity, they reckon, makes it dull and staid. After all, what’s the point of writing the book if you already know everything that happens?
Well, I’m one of these people for whom knowing the end of the story doesn’t spoil it for me. In fact, I often enjoy a book or a movie more the second time around, when I’m not worrying about what comes next and I can simply enjoy the ride.
And agents and publishers these days like to have an idea of what they’re getting, in advance. Beyond anything else, the basic synopsis gives them – and therefore me – a good idea of whether the underlying idea appeals to them or not. If it doesn’t, then I’m fighting a losing battle before I put the first word on screen.
With the latest Charlie Fox novel delivered, I’m in the thumb-twiddling and nail-biting period, so the best way to distract myself is to plan the next one. Obviously, in a series there are a lot of factors that are carried over from the last book. Particularly in a series where the main character develops from book to book, rather than remaining static. Up to now, I’ve tried very hard to keep each story independent – so the books can be read out of sequence without problem.
But, inevitably, this has had to change. This time, there is a lot of carry-over from the events of the last book. And by that I don’t mean I left the main plot hanging. There was a satisfactory resolution on that front, but it was the personal story line that’s ongoing. And in the next one, Charlie’s life has been turned even further upside down. She will question all her beliefs in order to follow a course of action that could be her downfall on every level.
Producing a coherent outline is a headache. As is always the case about now, I drag out the outline from the last book to try and work out how on earth I put this thing together before. Trust me, it gets no easier.
The old outline is usually looking a bit grubby and sorry for itself by now, having been dragged everywhere with me like a child’s tatty comfort blanket. It has been much pawed over and scribbled on by the time it was put away, and it is now covered in pencil corrections and amendments and … probably bears very little resemblance to the finished book. The main plot points usually stay the same, though, and while the details may change, it at least gives me the basic story arc, and tells me at any given point how far through the story I ought to be, as certain key elements fall into place. It helps me keep track of the pace.
Once my basic idea has formed out of the ether, the first thing I always write is the imaginary jacket copy. I pick up the book in my mind, turn it over and read the back of the jacket. Does the idea grab me? I mean, really grab me? It better had, because I’m going to have to spend months immersed in it. When I go back through my files, this is exactly what I put together for THIRD STRIKE, before I began to write the book:
‘I was running when I saw my father kill himself. Not that he jumped off a tall building or stepped in front of a truck but – professionally, personally – what I watched him do was suicide.’
The last person that ex-Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, ever expected to self-destruct was her own father, an eminent consultant surgeon. But when Charlie unexpectedly sees him admitting to gross professional misconduct on a New York news programme, she can’t just stand by and watch his downfall.
That’s not easy when Richard Foxcroft, always cold towards his daughter, rejects her help at every turn. The good doctor has never made any secret of his disapproval of Charlie’s choice of career – or her relationship with her boss, Sean Meyer. And now, just as Charlie and Sean are settling in to their new life in the States, Foxcroft seems determined to go down in a blazing lack of glory, taking his daughter and everyone she cares about down with him.
But those behind Foxcroft’s fall from grace have not bargained on Charlie’s own ruthless streak. A deadly professional who’s always struggled to keep her killer instinct under control, this time she has very personal reasons for wanting to neutralise the threat to her reluctant principal.
And when the threads of the conspiracy reach deep into a global corporation with almost unlimited resources, the battle is going to be bitter and bloody …
Now, in that case, I already had my opening lines as well. The whole thing is less than 250 words. And, as a bonus, it more or less follows the finished book!
After that initial half-page, I start to put together my back story. Very few books start at the absolute beginning of the story, and because Charlie Fox is working in close protection, there has to be a threat of some kind to the client before she’s brought in. I need to know what it is, and more or less everything that’s happened up to the point at which she – and the reader – join the tale.
This is where a first-person narrative is both a blessing and a curse. A lot of the back story will take place off camera. If Charlie wasn’t actually there, she has to find out this information somehow, in such a way that it doesn’t put the reader – or the writer, for that matter – to sleep in the process. But at the moment all I want to know is what happened before, in broad strokes. Trying to work out exactly how Charlie fits into all this would clog me up and slow me down. Detail comes later.
Having got my back story and decided my jumping-off point for the book, I write down the main structure points. An attack on the principal. An ambush on the road. A meeting. A double-cross. A confrontation between the characters. I start off with the whole thing as bare-bones as I can get away with, and then I go over it, again and again, adding a little more detail with each layer, as the twists and turns make themselves apparent.
This is where having my back story to hand is so useful, as I can put the two side-by-side and see where Charlie’s story intersects with the back story, to make sense of the course of events. Ever watched an old James Bond film and wondered how the villain’s identically dressed henchmen always seemed to turn up in the right place at the right time to pursue 007? If anyone asks me the same question, I should be able to answer it from the back story. (And, if I can’t, I need to find that answer, pdq.)
And, with apologies to all the techie crowd out there, I do this on paper in pencil. Usually on a fold-over clipboard so I can use it in the car or wherever, and always have a flat surface to write on. The clipboard also doubles as a handy laptop tray, to stop me cooking my legs if I’m working on screen for any length of time.
The hardest part of plotting, as always for me, is the misdirection, where Charlie has to believe something other than the truth is going on, and someone other than the culprit is responsible. This usually occurs to me as I’m layering it in. Anything happening behind the scenes, I put in brackets in my outline, as an aside to myself, just so I know what’s really going on.
Having got my basic outline, I then do my cast list. Some will be continuing characters, but a lot will be new people, and at this stage I only need a brief idea of who they are. They will introduce themselves to me more fully as I go along. I’ve tried doing full biographies for characters before I start, and it just doesn’t work for me. I need to ‘meet’ them, in person, in context, before I really know who they are.
For the last few books I have had the privilege of adding in the character of someone who has bid at a charity auction for the right to be included. In SECOND SHOT this was Frances L Neagley, who became a Boston Private Investigator. In THIRD STRIKE, it was Terry O’Loughlin – a Texas lawyer for a pharmaceutical giant. In the latest book, FOURTH DAY, the winner particularly wanted her name used in such a way that possibly only she would recognise it. And in the new book I have not one, but two characters to incorporate – a mother and daughter. Fortunately, before I started outlining I had vague plans for a father and daughter as central characters, but a mother and daughter works even better.
Unless they’re auction bidders, finding names for new characters can be a bit of a chore. Fortunately, I can always call on various random name generator sites, including this one, which will allow you to be more specific, asking for names suitable for a hillbilly, a rapper, or a goth, as well as specifying country of origin.
At this stage, this is just a rough idea of who I need to people my world, trying to make sure all of them don’t have names beginning with the same letter, or ending with a similar sound, which can lead to confusion. I went to a writing group meeting last week and someone read out a story in which all the main characters had names beginning with ‘B’, a fact which she hadn’t noticed before bringing the story to the group.
What I try not to plan in detail is the reactions of the characters to the events of the book. That I like to leave as a more organic process, arising naturally out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Dusty’s excellent blog from yesterday (see below) explained all the main archetypes and the cliché pitfalls that dot our path. Although there may only be a limited number of plots and – it would seem – a certain number of character types, it’s the way you as a writer choose to combine these, in your voice, that makes your story unique.
Of course, a lot will change by the time the book is finished, but for me it’s like going on a car journey at night. I know roughly the direction I’m travelling in. I know where to turn and which signs to follow. And I know where I ultimately want to end up. But as I drive fast into the darkness, a lot of the detail of the landscape and the road ahead is hidden, and I can only see with any clarity the area directly in front of the headlights.
With an outline, I have my road map and I do a little rolling detail outline as I go along, so I know the immediate future, the immediate path ahead, but occasionally obstacles and obstructions and detours crop up that you don’t expect, and then you – and your characters – have to react as best they can and hope you don’t crash.
So, where do you stand on the whole outline or not-outline issue. If you’re an outliner, how does your method of putting the whole thing together vary from mine? And, if you’re not an outliner, how do you set about getting into a new book?
This week’s Word of the Week is Juggernaut. With an initial capital, this means a very large lorry, but it also means any relentless destroying force or object of devotion or sacrifice; an incarnation of Vishna, whose idol at Puri is traditionally drawn on a processional chariot, beneath which devotees were once believed to throw and crush themselves. Also Jugannath, from Jagannatha, lord of the world.
And finally, as the only Brit member of the ‘Rati crew, I feel I ought to mention the fourth anniversary on Tuesday of the London bus and Underground bombings, which took place on July 7th 2005. They have just erected a memorial to the dead in Hyde Park in London – a collection of columns to represent the fallen, standing tall.