Posted tagged ‘outlining’

why I don’t outline

October 7, 2021

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.)

In which I may eat my words

June 14, 2008

In a recent post I mentioned that I rarely outline my stories before I write them. I think I may have to reassess that method now with The Sleep of Reason.

This story is told in first person. My narrator is also the protagonist. He will undergo a number of transformations and revelations in the story, and about many of these he will be self deluding. He will think he is in charge only to realize later that he is not. He will attempt to manipulate people while not realizing that he is being manipulated by others. Actions must happen in a proper sequence for his understandings to occur, and then later actions will trigger his deeper understandings. He won’t realize the trouble he is in until too late to extract himself from it.

I’m finding that I cannot rely on my seat-of-the-pants approach to narrative structure that has served me well with the other novels I have written. For the purposes of this novel I can see that I must have a much more comprehensive understanding of the sequence of the plot. And so I think I must spend some time trying to sketch an outline of what must happen when so that I don’t lose the nuance I need to develop the character, which is half of this story. I have more than 10,000 words of notes for this story, and I must get them organized if they are to serve me.

For some reason that escapes me, I’ve always considered the need for outlining to be a sort of weakness in a writer. If a writer needs to outline a story, he or she must not have a very good understanding of the story. Time for a reassessment of my hubris, obviously. Perhaps I will find that it is actually a powerful tool that will take much of the drudgery out of the creative process. If I do, I hereby grant you permission to say “I told you so!”

Both tone and voice will be significant in this novel. (Some would argue that these are always significant in novels.) So often, though, when I read about some writer’s mastery of tone or voice, I find the works to be more like bludgeons that beat me up with their tone or voice. I don’t suppose most readers recognize these qualities unless they are far more blatant than is normally found in a well written work. (I cannot read the works of a certain well known horror writer anymore because the tone of dread in his novels is just too heavy handed.) Oftentimes what is called “mastery” is merely a lack of subtlety.

I’ve always felt that half of a story is in the telling. Even the most thrilling adventure can sound boring if narrated in a monotoned voice. Conversely, a simple tale can be quite entertaining in the hands of a skilled story teller.