why I don’t outline

I’ve long thought that the reason so many writers love the “rules” (whether that’s grammar or genre conventions or the proper use of dialogue tags or whatever) is because there is so much self doubt in what we do. Is this good enuf? Am I good enuf? Will anyone want what I write? Will anyone read what I write? Should I be writing something else? And on. So when someone comes along and says that this or that rule about writing is absolute, a good many of us are quickly seduced by the imagined certainty and cleave to that rule.

Of course one writer’s rule is another writer’s suggestion and another writer’s antagonist. Long-time readers of this humble blog (both of you) will know that I don’t give much allegiance to the rules (even spelling — the word “enuf” occurs throughout Obelus — and I suspect my use of em dashes is often incorrect). Sentence fragments seem to be integral to my natural style. But then I know of at least one 100+ word sentence I’ve written as well.

One of the fundamental bits of guidance writers are given when starting out is to outline the intended work in advance. Organize your thoughts. Put them in order. Re-order them. Organize sub-thoughts under major points. Work from a premise and work toward a conclusion.

Yeah, I don’t do that.

When I start on a story, I do generally have an idea of where I’m going and what I want to achieve. But in nearly all cases, my result is far from the original idea. Latest Big Project is a good example. I had an idea for writing a semi-serious work of seeming non-fiction that was really going to be a very unconventional work of fiction. And while it’s still that, the semi-serious portion is barely holding on. The seeming non-fiction part has grown more absurd as I’ve been writing it. Crazy thoughts come into my head throughout the day about how I could develop this idea or introduce that idea. I had introduced a sub-plot that I thought would give my character some depth, and that sub-plot has taken over and become the main (hidden) point of the story.

Similarly with Obelus, a certain character was intended all along to be an ambitious free-lance journalist, but when it came to showing her as such, I suddenly shifted her into something altogether different. I don’t know where this revelation came from. I hadn’t planned for it, but it took the novel in a different, and better, direction. It’s a vastly different novel in tone and plot (the plot is the MacGuffin).

My point is that if I had outlined what I wanted to write in advance, I don’t know that these “revelations” would have come to me. If I had been neat and orderly in advance, I think I might have missed out on the creative chaos and discovery that seems to work so well for me. I’d have been devoted (blinded?) to developing the story as it was originally conceived rather than flowing with it as it evolved.

So I don’t outline. Well, not in advance. I am about to begin outlining Latest Big Project, which I have mostly finished, so I can see where to wedge in hints and references to the sub-plot that’s become the main plot. It needs to build to that (where all is revealed in the final chapter). So having an outline of how things are now will be a kind of after-the-fact guidebook for where to take it further.

What about you? Do you outline in advance?


(Funny, this post is not at all what I had started out to write.)

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2 Comments on “why I don’t outline”

  1. I don’t outline, but that’s not to say I don’t have some idea of what a story is about and who the viewpoint character is before I begin putting words on the page. Well, except when I began writing “Finder’s Fee.” I started with a single paragraph, and although I had the immediate situation and the viewpoint character’s voice, I had no idea who this person was nor what was going to happen later. (This method worked for one of my favorite authors when he began his “great work” — a series of ten novels, in all, plus a handful of short stories — with no idea who the viewpoint character really was nor why he was attacking that castle…)

    Some blogger I follow once describe the process that’s neither “plotting” (outlining) nor “pantsing” (writing by the seat of one’s pants, with no planning at all) as waypoint writing: You have some idea of what you’re going to write about, but only the major “waypoints” along the way are mapped in advance, and everything else is exploring/making it up as you go.

  2. Like you, I love those revelations that pop up when you’re not trying to force something into what you thought a thing was going to be before even getting into it.

    With exceptions, most stories that are heavily planned…sound like it: beats are hit, points are made, and it’s usually a race to the end. And I’m not fond of that.

    Some of the best things I’ve written were little more than a rough idea or even an image I liked…with no end in mind. Just…I’ve done it enuf that I know I’ll get there 🙂

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