16 December 2013

I, A, B, II, A, (1) (2) (a),(b) B

If you've heard this before, and some of you have, now's the time to go for another cup of coffee. Please come back with it because before this ends I'm going to tell you how and why I used an outline for the first time when writing a book.

Last year, my grandson's language arts teacher told the class, "All writers plan their works with graphic organizers or outlines."

Aeden's hand shot up and he responded, "Not all of them."

"Yes, real writers do."

"But my G-Mama doesn't."

To shorten this story, the class wound up Googling me to satisfy the teacher that Aeden's grandmother really does write professionally.
Grandson is now
a teenager.

Aeden insisted that I don't use organizers and outlines, but the teacher still made the students all use the graphic organizer sheet she'd printed.

My classroom days are over, and I agree some of the forms used in classes no doubt help develop better student writers. Some of them address plot; some, characterization; some, setting; some, literary devices; some, other topics ad nauseam.

Frequently the forms are cute and most kids like cute much better than the old outline form with its capital letters, lower case letters, Roman and Arabic numerals that was used when I was in elementary school.

In my personal opinion, a lot of what's being used is too restrictive, even for students. Aeden's accelerated LA instructor this year sometimes uses forms requiring the writers to use a metaphor in the first paragraph, onomatopoeia in the second, direct quotations in the third, and on and on and on.

So where am I headed with all this? I haven't used an outline or, heaven forbid, a mimeographed graphic organizer sheet since I was a kid... until this year!

I started the first Callie book with a nursery rhyme, stuck a casket in it, and produced a title. (A Tisket, a Tasket, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET) I then thought of an ending. I wanted to have the protagonist wind up locked in a casket, and I actually wrote the climatic chapter first. After that, it was easy to start from the beginning and write until I reached the ending.

That pattern worked for the next four books, but the sixth required me to actually have a plan, an outline of sorts.

This time, the idea wasn't a nursery rhyme, but a song--"The Twelve Days of Christmas." The full title naturally was On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A CASKET UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE. I wanted to relate it to the song, so I Googled and printed out the traditional words. That led to wanting to sing it, so my sons and grandson began making up lines that fit the melody but were related to mystery or crime or the South. I decided to use them as chapter headings. We came up with twelve presents to use. Here they are:

Everyone knows the pattern. It begins with the first verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
A corpse under the Christmas tree.
The second verse is:
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
Each additional verse adds a new present and then repeats all the previous gifts. At the end, it goes like this:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Twelve eggs a’nogging
Eleven axes grinding,
Ten turkeys trotting,
Nine guns a’smoking,
Eight collards cooking,
Seven doggies howling,
Six tongues a’wagging,
Five stolen rings,
Four falling flakes,
Three red wreaths,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
I had an outline--not with all those letters and numbers, but a plan. I decided each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages to make twelve chapters add up to novel length. Later I added recipes for my friends who laugh at recipes and knitting patterns in cozies and also because my agent likes for the Callie books to run between 80,000 and 85,000 words.

Next task: Develop an overall plot using chapters appropriate to their titles. I confess it took some thought, but I managed it and made one-line notes for each chapter. Then I wrote A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree. I can now say I've written a book essentially from an outline.

Currently I'm not working on a Callie, and I've reverted back to my favorite kind of writing. I call it "falling into the page." Stephen King describes it this way:

Until we meet again, take care of ...you!


  1. You, Liz, Janice… I now know where a couple of Christmas gifts are coming from.

    I particularly like the Six tongues a'wagging and Four flakes a'falling.

  2. An entertaining piece.
    I do think there is a big difference between fiction ( where I never outline) and non-fiction, where I at least make a list and know where I'm going.

    As far as students go, I never found the classic outline with Roman numerals, no less, helpful. On the other hand, learning some sense of structure and of how to write essay questions and school papers quickly is invaluable.

  3. Leigh, "Four Flakes A'Falling" was a lot of fun to write. Remember that Callie lives on the coast of South Carolina.
    Janice, glad you pointed out that a plan of some kind, whether outline or list, really helps when writing non-fiction. I confess that I also wrote those required lesson plans in outline form.
    A fun small group activity we did in writing classes was to let each group PLAN a story without any writing. They then separated and each student wrote the same story. The students took turns reading aloud, and the class critiqued, compared, and contrasted the varying forms of the story.
    BTW, the "Reading Aloud Chair" in my elementary classroom was a high-backed bar stool from my favorite happy hour spot.

  4. Gee, tall tales related verbally on a bar stool. That's original in an elementary school. I LOVE it!

    My favorite part of the song was "five golden rings".

    Your idea of writing the climactic chapter first is something I've done myself at times, as well as creating the occasional flow-chart for complicated mysteries, so that I can remember how the good guy is supposed to solve the thing.

    "Falling into the story" is a wonderful feeling. Isn't it?


  5. I confess I downloaded the irresistable skeleton form! LOL Thanks for sharing it. It makes me think that teaching writing in school has come at least some positive way since I was there and it was, "Well, have at it!" That's great "guidance" for writing thumbnail sketches or snippets of things, but it doesn't teach you writing as a craft. And while I know once you get going there is that inner voice King mentions, I have always thought that little voice can't speak effectively if structure isn't there. It makes me wonder if a sense of structure is more intuitive to some writers than others, so they aren't consciously aware of its presence in them.

  6. Dixon, those kids loved that tall chair that put them above everyone else and meant the others were to listen without interrupting. They made notes and discussion came after the reading.
    I wrote the first and last chapter of this horror thing before even considering the plot. What I hate is to fall into the story, write like a maniac, and then one day come to a screeching halt and say, "What next?"

  7. Anonymous, you've hit on a good point. I agree that the sense of structure is more intuitive in some than others. That skeleton came off the Internet where I found hundreds of them there for the picking. Help yourself!

  8. (laughing) I have so been there! But, usually, my "screeching halt" is more like a long coast to a stop. And, it usually occurs in the middle, because I tend to have the front and back figured out before beginning -- often focusing on that climactic scene to feel my way forward. After coasting to a stop -- when that happens -- I often spend a few days thinking, before getting my bearings and setting off again on the journey. So, maybe the "subconscious structure" concept rings relatively true.

  9. Okay, it's also been pointed out to me that I made a typo. My favorite part of the song was "Five STOLEN rings!"

  10. Dixon, it's golden in the original though, so it worked.
    What I do when I come to a screeching halt is usually have lunch with a kindred spirit and talk through the possibilities.

  11. Fran, when I read about talking with a kindred spirit, I read it wrong. I had a sudden mental image of you lunching in a high tea room with a ghost. I guess it fits your book, kinda', though. :-)

  12. Anonymous, your last comment is priceless because right now, my "kindred spirit" is a ghost-hunter who's not been writing very long, but is the best "bounce around" idea friend I've ever had. He's extremely helpful with this horror book I'm writing but also came up with the method of murder for Santa in A CORPSE UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE.


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