Memoir, Revising, Writing Residencies

How To Write a Book Proposal When You Are a Pantser. Part 1: Chapter Outline

I am a pantser. Like Joan Didion says, I write to understand what I’m thinking. So when I look at the task of writing a detailed outline of a book I haven’t even written yet, I falter. (This is a nice way of saying I got a lot of writing done while procrastinating on this particular step of the book proposal process.) But I had a week in a rented house in another state with a writing friend. It was time.

I knew being on a computer staring at a Word document was going to be too much like my day job. Not to mention, the Internet was right there. So I packed for this week like it was 1985. I had writing pads, index cards, tape, scissors, binder clips, paper clips, highlighters, and my favorite uniball signo pens with off-black ink (h/t Jet Pens).

The first day I took my coffee to the dining room table and got to work. My friend—a wonderfully organized human being who outlined her book in an afternoon—looked on in amusement as I began ripping index cards into pieces. Main ideas went on half index cards. Related ideas went on index card quarters. The ripping was a satisfying way to dissipate some of my nervous energy.

The rest of the day looked like a tarot reading or a bridge game. I stared at the cards. I moved a few cards, and then stared again. What patterns would the mosaic of index cards reveal? What was the future of my book? I had been struggling bringing parts of the book together. How was a Confederate navigator related to my fascination with the night sky? I started to write little connecting ideas and taped them to the bamboo skewers my AirBnB host so helpfully left for visiting writers such as myself.

The next day I gently laid placemats over my index card idea array. It was still there, available for reference, but I had a clean slate so to speak. Out came the index cards again. Back when I molded young minds for a living, I told my students that research papers began with a thesis statement, but that creative nonfiction began with a research question that the essay answered. (And this, my friends, is how I justified teaching creative writing in a research writing class.) I needed the research questions my chapters would answer.

So I started writing questions on index cards. When I had two placemat’s worth of questions, I laid two more placemats on top of my craft project art installation research notes. This was the high-stakes part. Clearly I needed to visit the bakery across the street for sustenance. No one should have to write a chapter outline without chocolate. I don’t make the rules.

By the time I had three research questions for my two themes, I decided I was ready to commit to paper. I modified Jennie Nash’s Outcome Outline and wrote a chart. (I’m a scientific editor. I love charts.) Using the bamboo skewers as a straight edge, I made four columns. Chapter number, research question, the answer to the research question (the point), and the “because of that,” which I vaguely retitled “direction.”

It was time to harden my heart. The third day I took my outline chart and my coffee back to bed. It is best to be comfortable when killing your darlings. I looked at each question, point, and direction (leading to the next chapter) and thought really hard about whether they belonged. I did my best to be faithful to what I was actually writing, rather than what I could write. I looked at the wobbly points and questions, and…I killed them.

“It’s an iterative process,” I said to my friend at least twice a day when we took breaks in the kitchen. By the end of the week I had one and a half revisions of my chapter outline. And a week later, at home, in bed—because you must be comfortable when you are killing your darlings—I am revising my third outcome chart. It’s messy, but I think it’s true. And yes I wrote this blog post as procrastination.

Onward, my friends! Writing is hard, but it beats working.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Memoir, Uncategorized

Dad Jokes

There is a joke my father used to love to tell.

There’s an astronomer, a mathematician, and an engineer walking through a field in Scotland. They see a black sheep on a hill in front of them. The astronomer looks at the sheep and declares, “I conclude there are many black sheep in all of Scotland.” The mathematician shakes his head disapprovingly and says, “I conclude there is at least one black sheep in all of Scotland.” The engineer shakes her head and says, “I conclude that the sheep is black on the side facing us.”

When I was a kid, he explained it to me, and I didn’t get it. In my twenties, I got it, but didn’t think it was funny. Now, I both get it and think it’s funny.

The engineer can only swear to that which she can verify for sure. You don’t want to build a bridge assuming the pilings are thick enough. You want to measure, design, and plan to be sure. This is how copyeditors look at the words they are paid to edit. Is there a period there? There should be a period there. But is it actually there? Would you bet your paycheck on it?

All day I read scientific papers that might as well had been in a foreign language for all I understand them. This lack of comprehension means there is nothing to distract me from how these sentences are constructed. Eventually I become familiar with the vocabulary and although I do not know what the words mean, I learn what part of speech they are, how they tend to be used in a sentence and how they fit together. I am a structural engineer of language.

Do you think the joke is funny?