On Outlining, How-To Books, and Swordplay

Not my forte... Image courtesy of Chatchai Somwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not my forte…
Image courtesy of Chatchai Somwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was in university, I was on the varsity fencing team. This was mostly because there were so few women at my school that anyone female who showed up on time for each practice made the team. 

I wasn’t very good. I enjoyed it, though. After graduation, I joined a local salle near my squeaky-new job. 

Fencing master after fencing master told me I needed to be faster on the lunge. So I practiced my lunge until my thigh muscled rebelled, but I never got faster — until a new master showed me how to start the lunge by lifting my leading toe first. Immediately I was able to hit opponents who had danced out of my way (presumably laughing behind their masks) before.

The point of this little story? What seems obvious to me may not be obvious to someone I’m trying to instruct. I try to remember that whenever I need to explain something. I’d forgotten the inverse of that lesson — if I’m having trouble learning something, sometimes what I need is not more study or practice. I need an instructor with a different perspective.

Which brings me to “Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing” by Libbie Hawker.

IMG_2658When I first picked up this volume, I was underwhelmed — more literary terms like “character arc,” “inciting event” and “theme” that put me to sleep in my undergraduate humanities classes. Fuzzy terms. Not actionable. 

I was wrong. Ms. Hawker explains these terms with precise definitions and examples that even an engineer can understand. As a result, I now have a theme for my novel. I have a plot developed from a character arc. I believe that by this time tomorrow I’ll be actually drafting the novel that I couldn’t outline for two months — and all with work I’ve done in the last week. 

It’s not that the how-to books I’ve read on writing process are wrong. They just didn’t tell me I needed to “lift my toe.” Lifting that “toe” was so obvious to them that it didn’t occur to them to mention it. I’ve cross-correlated with my other books, and nothing in Hawker is contradicted by anyone. But everyone else assumes that outlining a book is so obvious that the detailed description in Hawker is, well, overkill. Or it may come so easily to them that they’re not conscious of the detailed steps. 

It doesn’t matter. I’ve found an outlining master at last.

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