Posts Tagged ‘outlines’

I admit it: I used to not see the point of outlining a story, much less a novel. Shouldn’t real writers leap full into the fray with teeth bared, ready to shred writer’s block into little bloody shreds?

Then I discovered that, hey, plotting is hard. So I did try outlining—you know, the kind you get taught in school, with the I… A… a)… i)… and so on. I soon discovered that the format drove me crazy, and the outline would get tangled up when the actual writing came into play.

Finally, at wit’s end, I saw K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success in the Kindle store for $5, and after reading through the sampler, I decided to chance the money.

Was it worth it? You bet it was.

For a “pantser” (that is, writing by the seat of your pants) such as myself, I didn’t understand the viewpoint of the plotter (unsurprisingly, a writer who plots ahead of time) all that well. Other writing books merely allude to outlining as a possible methodology for Getting It Written; but Weiland’s is entirely tailored to the art of the fiction writer’s outline—which, as it turns out, is pretty loose and free-form, not at all like what we generated in high school.

Indeed, while Weiland is a hard-core outliner, she discusses the different ways and depths to which one can outline, and offers guidance towards constructing the building blocks—always one of the hardest places to begin whether writing or outlining. As I read the book, I was left with an impression of outlining rather akin to that of a painter beginning with a quick sketch, then filling out the picture in gradual layers. Methodical, yes, but watch an artist painting some time—it’s a combination of method and inspiration that leads to shades of sunsets, rippling waters, lit forest clearings, and so on.

Ultimately, here’s the key to understanding the outlining mindset: outlining is writing. Writing is primarily about problem-solving, and outlining is a way to take the structures circulating in the nebulous understanding of your brain and transcribe them into concrete form. Something concrete (especially if you can manipulate it, via index cards, mind map bubbles, or plain old Word) is leagues easier to reason about in the end than something that’s just in your head.

Of course, “concrete” is misleading here; an outline is rarely set in stone. Having the flexibility to deal with changes is vital, particularly as you begin to write out full scenes. I feel that this is where the book, which hitherto had wended into such glorious detail about outlining, left things dangling. The idea is that if you plan enough ahead of time, derailings should be minor—and I suspect as one gets more experience writing, that this theory eventually holds up. But what do you do about major derailings?

Sometimes, as painful as it is, you gotta go back to the drawing board.

I highly recommend this book to the impromptu writer looking for another technique to add to their toolbox.


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Burn through the Words is a series of posts suggesting strategies you can use to hit your writing goals. Feel free to use, abuse, or disregard entirely; writing is a strange and personal beast and all advice herein should be taken on the rocks with a nice rim of salt.

Where ARE we going?

Lots of writers advocate the outline, and it seems like just as many freeze up at the very notion. I have to let the story tell me where it wants to go, says the non-plotter. And I dig that, non-plotter, I honestly do. But.

Let me tell you, non-outliners and general rebels a very exciting secret I discovered, one that transformed me from anti-outline to pro-outline.

An outline is something you write. It is creative. It is something you imagine, something you dream up. And it is just as organic and alive as everything else you write. You can change it. You don’t have to follow it. It is not a detainment center for your characters to be trapped in; it’s a road map for them to follow, or not follow, whatever they want, because really, we all know who’s in charge, don’t we? It’s not us. It’s our characters. And if you tell one to zig and he wants to zag, for God’s sake let him zag. Trust him. You can always change your outline.

The other thing about writing an outline for your novel (or story) is that it forces you to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going. It forces you to fill in that vast, murky middle with something. It might not be that brilliant of a something, but it’s a lot better than getting 25,000 words in, and then just having no clue what happens next. I have been there, oh boy have I been there, and honestly nothing kills a good writing streak like not knowing what happens next.

So outline! Try it! Write down a sentence or two for each major scene in your story. Make sure your tension is rising towards a terrible disaster, bust out that climax, and wrap that puppy up. Yep, you’ve got holes, I know you do. Look at the holes, and spend a few days mulling over what to plug into them. Don’t wait until you’re stuck in a hole to figure that out. It can be really hard to see a solution once you’re down in the muck.

And in the end, if you don’t like your outline, you can always scrap it and try something else. It’s a much more flexible document than it seems, and it just might be the key to your success.

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