Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I., II. A, III. A. B, IV. A. 1., V. A. B. 1. a. - OUTLINING!

"No beginner should write without an outline. If I could enforce this as an absolute, I would...what exists in your mind is a creative nebula, not a solar system. It is a chaos of matter which might be organized into a solar system." - Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction

And even though the famous writer's advice was for beginners, consider the habits of another more recent and successful nonfiction writer: Rick Atkinson, one of my favorites, and author of award-winning books such as An Army at Dawn:

"I'm an inveterate outliner. I sit down...I go through all the material that I've got, all the computer files of all the primary and secondary material that I've got and I go through and I decide this is a fact that goes in the trash...This looks interesting...I can see the scene where this goes and I construct this outline and the outline is 250 to 300 pages long...That's the blueprint, that's the map. That lets me know that I know where I'm going. And once I've got the outline done, then I start at the beginning and I go through and you've got to have some flexibility when you've got this roadmap..."

(Quoted from Atkisnon's excellent Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb)

People who write nonfiction write in different ways. Hey, I'm no Ayn Rand...or Rick Atkinson... but what I am is a dedicated outliner. All of my published writing - from the shortest article to my books - has been based on well-developed outlines.

Outlining does more than just organize your thoughts; it also helps with discipline: this is all the more important in short form writing (newspaper columns, shorter magazine, articles, etc.), with strict word counts. Indeed, I still have a word count limit for my new book project, "Marching Onward to Victory"...a healthy word count (30-40K words)...but a word count, nonetheless! I'm really happy that I earned my historical research/writing "bona fides" through shorter column and articles (1-3K words) because it trained me to do several things:

  • I learned to find the point of the story (Focus!)
  • I learned to self-edit (to keep to word counts)
  • I tend to write more often (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! Practice Practice!)
The outline also helps me from letting one section get too lopsided relative to the rest of the book.

My outlining starts well before I actually begin writing in earnest. In fact, outlines are an important part of any book proposal, and I had been working on and polishing my Notre Dame book proposal (and outline) for some time before submitting it to publishers.

My first step is to simply divide the book into its biggest "parts" - i.e., the chapters. So, I began with:

Chapter 1 - Rumors of War (Student Military Companies)
Chapter 2 - Fishers of Men (Priests as Army Chaplains)
Chapter 3 - Angels of Mercy (Sister-Nurses)
Chapter 4 - Into the Fire (1861-1862)
Chapter 5 - Friends of the Family (The Shermans and Notre Dame)
Chapter 6 - Above and Beyond the Call of Duty (1863-1864)
Chapter 7 - Vote Early and Often (Political Pressure and Fisticuffs)
Chapter 8 - We Happy Few (Notre Dame Veterans)

At about 10 "parts," one of my writing goals will be to balance the chapters at 3-4K words each...mind you, this is a goal..."not so much a rule, more of a guideline" as they said in Pirates of the Carribean.

Now, each of the chapters has a flow/form of its own, so it is further subdivided in a more detailed outline that I develop based on research I've already done and research that is still in progress.

Nonfiction book proposals actually have a "narrative" outline - i.e., anywhere from a few sentences to a few paragraphs to give an idea of the opening ("hook"), body, and closing of each chapter. The more research you've done in preparing the proposal, the more developed the narrative outline can be.

Here's a preview of some of the people you'll "meet" in my forthcoming book, Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010); my narrative outline for Chapter 1 went something like this:

Even before the Civil War started, the students at Notre Dame were preparing for one. Compulsory military training was the custom of the day at most colleges and universities, and a tradition of drilling at Notre Dame can be traced to the late 1850s, when the student-organized “Continental Cadets” began marching across campus in their blue-and-buff Revolutionary War-style uniforms.

When the guns fired on Ft. Sumter and President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, the citizens of South Bend, Indiana, met at the courthouse to determine the course of action to be taken. There, Bill Lynch, a tall and soldierly Notre Dame student – and commander of the Continental Cadets – denounced the secessionists and declared that he would, if need be, “shed his last drop of blood for the Union.” The crowd “leaped to is feet” as “cheer after cheer rang out wildly” and a company of soldiers was raised on the spot. Lynch then returned to the school where, as one report stated, he “set his own cadets afire, or rather…let the blaze out – they were afire already.”

Lynch was only one of several UND students who took up arms. “Almost every member of the Continental Cadets became a real soldier in the army,” one student wrote many years later, adding, “Many of them became distinguished; many more took their place in the private ranks, content so that they did their duty well.”

Fr. Sorin praised the cadets for their good spirit but declared that he had no authority to allow boys under twenty-one to enlist without their parents’ permission.

The chapter will introduce (at least) three Notre Dame students who especially distinguished themselves in the war: Lynch - first of the 23rd Illinois Infantry and then colonel of the 58th Illinois – was severely wounded at Yellow Bayou, Louisiana, and was brevetted a brigadier general; Robert Healy, another Notre Dame graduate, who succeeded Lynch as commander of the 58th Illinois and also earned a brevet promotion to brigadier; and, especially, Orville T. Chamberlain, a student who joined the 74th Indiana in 1862, rose through the ranks from private to captain, and earned the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire at Chickamauga.

Also of interest are students Robert and William Pinkerton, the sons of detective – and Union intelligence chieftain - Allan Pinkerton, who pulled his sons out of UND so that they could assist him in the field.

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