Outlines versus Daydreams

By Poison Ivy,

I’ve been doing some considering lately about what an outline is. This is because some of our hopeful writers who send submissions seem extremely puzzled when we ask to see an outline before we okay writing a script. The distinctive difference between writing for other people and writing just for yourself is that for other people, you need substance. Specifically, you need a plot.

Think about it. When you buy a book in a bookstore, you expect there to be a plot. A beginning to the story, a middle, and an end. But I have had submissions that are only beginnings. Or that do not have middles. Or that do not have endings.

How can this be, you wonder? Well, a lot of romance readers have certain scenes that they daydream about. These are take-offs of scenes from novels they have read. Kind of like answer songs in music. They often happen when the reader believes that the author should not have sent the story in a certain direction so the reader rewrites the story in her own head. Or when the book is over but the reader wants it to continue. Often, these imaginary scenes are grandstanding martyrdom scenes. I’ve always believed that the core of Iris Johansen’s early success with readers was based on her predilection for writing exactly such scenes: The hard-done-by heroine bravely suffers kind of moment. Of course Johansen wrote her manuscripts at a professional level, which is why they got published. But they frequently contained these kinds of scenes.

So, the reader, frustrated by the uncooperative writer who insists on sending her story one way or even ending it, imagines a scene in her head. Some of these readers have gone on to write entire Star Trek or Star Wars stories, sheerly for the pleasure of continuing contact with characters someone else has invented. That’s fan fiction. And at least these people have written entire stories.

But other would-be writers don’t quite make it far enough to have written an entire story about Han Solo and Leia Organa. Instead, they dream up a few scenes or maybe just one scene. And then they think that these few scenes constitute a complete story.

This is the reason that editors demand to see an outline or synopsis. An outline tells what happens, step by step, citing the facts and the motivations for each event as it occurs. So does a synopsis. In my mind they are interchangeable, but a writer friend just told me he thinks that an outline is written before the story is written, whereas a synopsis is written after it has been written. Do you see any difference in the final product? Neither do I, but I’ll accept that for some people there is a distinction between the two.

Back to the would-be writer who has this great scene in her mind. I have actually had people describe such scenes to me and expect to sell the story based on having just one scene. But they don’t know what happens next to their characters. They have no plot. Maybe they figure that it’ll all take care of itself. In a blog I read today, Fun with Slush #4, another editor was complaining about the laziness of people who send this kind of partial submission. So it’s not just in the romance world that would-be writers think they only have to have a part of an idea, and someone else will deal with the rest. Years ago, a friend who was working for a classy hardcover publisher shared with me the snotty note a rejected author had sent the publisher: This lady was indignant, saying that there was a good story in her manuscript and all the editor had to do was find it. Not so.

It is the writer’s responsibility to write a complete story. Writing is work. The mere fact that we all use words every day does not make any of us writers. Just as the mere fact that we all eat each day does not make us cordon bleu chefs. So if you have what you think is a good story idea, do the work. Develop it. Create the actions and connections that turn dramatic scenes into parts of a complete tale. Not just parts.

The proof that you have done your thinking work as a writer is an outline (or synopsis) that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that all hangs together and makes sense. In the case of MyRomanceStory.com, the outline absolutely must have romantic moments. Modern romance is about touching and kissing and making love. If you can’t imagine more than a courtroom scene in which your hard-done-by heroine proves that her baby really is the hero’s, you haven’t written a romance. If your story consists only of snappy banter, you haven’t written a romance. If your hero and heroine never have a reason to kiss, you haven’t written a romance.

I love romances. I even love hard-done-by, nobly suffering heroines. Write that story in its entirety, and I’ll be happy to read it. But please, send me an outline first.