Sunday, August 13, 2017

No Outline Required

Different people take different approaches. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about life, career paths, culinary efforts or the route to the grocery store. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Imagine how boring it would be if we all did the same things in the very same way. 

Take writing.  There are some very talented authors who are meticulous when it comes to planning out their work. They take the time to diligently plot out each step along the way. Some use notecards, others use a spreadsheet on the computer or a large whiteboard or flip chart. Hey, whatever works.   

But that method is definitely not for me.

Even from an early age, I had difficulty working with an outline. It was too restrictive and made writing almost painful. I remember a nun at the elementary school who required an outline to be written and turned in before we wrote the paper. I cringed. I struggled. Nothing came to light. Images of getting my knuckles cracked by the good sister’s ruler for my ineptitude didn’t help matters. Then inspiration struck.

I wrote the paper first. Got it where it worked and covered all the topics. Then I went back and wrote the outline. That was turned in on schedule and I already had the big project done.  The nun was pleased with both the paper and the outline. So in the long run, everything worked out just fine.
But I still can’t write with an outline.

I find it confining. For me, it’s more natural to come up with an idea for the overall story and maybe a key character or two.  Once I’ve got them settled in, it’s my job to turn them loose. Forget micromanaging. I just trot along beside them and see what happens. And when I write, it’s rare that the story is shaped in chronological order. Very often I’ll have an idea for a scene or some dialogue that will just keep the neurons firing in my brain until the only recourse is to write it. When it’s down on the computer, then I can go back to the story. That’s one of the beauties of technology. I can move paragraphs or pages anywhere, all at the click of a button. Write it in sequence?  No thanks!

Here’s an example from “Why 319?” In this scene, Captain Pappy Cantrell grudgingly reveals his strategy for the three homicide investigations to Sergeant Jefferson Chene. The story is told from Chene’s perspective.

I waited until everyone else filed out of the room. Cantrell let his eyes close as if he were meditating. With the smoke curling up around his head, he looked like something out of a Tennessee monastery. The Art of Zen, courtesy of Jack Daniels.

“Well?” he muttered without opening his eyes.

“When were you going to clue me in on this plan, Pappy?”

“Y’all weren’t ready.”

I didn’t try to keep the anger from my voice. “Bullshit. I’ve been the lead on ninety percent of the investigations we’ve handled for the last three years. You know it. I know it. The whole freaking squad knows it.”

He took a long drag and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “But not everybody likes it.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “You mean Barksdale. The guy’s a dinosaur.”

“Would that be a triceratops?”

I was surprised he was able to name one, but then, Cantrell could be full of surprises. Like this new plan. “So how do you see this?”

“We split into three teams, just like Ah said. We put Koz with the new girl, Laura. Give them the oldest case, the Wayne County. You and Megan take the Macomb one. Bloomfield will want their girlie working their crime. We stick her with Barksdale.”

“So why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You all right, Chene, but you ain’t no actor. Ah wanted everyone to know this was a surprise, even you. It made your reaction real. You gettin’ pissy ’cause Ah didn’t tell you about it first.”

I considered it for a moment. The old bastard had it down cold. Barksdale would have pitched a holy fit if I’d made the decision to split the team by case and assign him the outsider. He and Megan could barely stand each other. Laura was too new to stick with him. That left the Bloomfield detective. Since the orders were coming down from Cantrell, there was no way he’d argue it. Especially when it appeared that Cantrell did not trust me to make the call. It was a stroke of genius, pure logistical genius. I told him as much.

“’Tweren’t nothin. You might have figured it out in a couple of days.”

“Don’t be so modest, Pappy. You know how to manipulate him.”

“Uh huh.”

It took me a moment to admit the rest. “And me too.”

He nodded slowly. “Hell, Chene, if Ah can’t ever manipulate ya, y’all ain’t no good to me.”

Yes, even though it's been decades since I graced the halls of the Catholic schools, the sight of a nun in a traditional habit can still creep me out. 

For today's musical interlude, here's a classic. Don't try to analyze the lyrics, just enjoy the ride.

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