Late in February, my colleague, Don Jacobson, uploaded a post entitled Twists and Turns Between First and Last Words, in which he talks about his method of writing a story. At this time I would like to tell Don that I both admire and loathe him. (Just kidding!) The admiration comes from his ability to build a story in his head with only a few notes to guide him as he works through the writing process. The . . . envy, shall we say, stems from that same fact! I thought it might be interesting to take a moment contrast the two styles.
How much easier it would be if I didn’t have to outline! Maybe that is nothing more than me seeing the greener grass on the other side of the fence, but if there is one part of the process that bedevils me more than any other, it is outlining. The outline phase is where the story is built in my case. It’s where the rubber meets the road. While I will not say writing is always easy, it usually goes a lot more smoothly than outlining, which is filled with fits and starts as inspiration hits and deserts me.
But I can confidently say that as difficult as I sometimes find it, outlining is definitely the way to go for me. Why you ask? Because I’ve tried it the other way. As a newbie writer back in the mid to late 90s, I had an idea (one I shared with my sister—it’s the idea that originally got me into writing) and after doing a significant amount of world-building for a fantasy world, we dove right into it and began to punch the thing out, certain it was the start of a famous best-seller. Yeah, I knew I should have taken that left toin at Albuquoique! Nearly 600 pages in Word later, we had a monstrous manuscript that still had not gotten to the point, and a book that was, in the words of one of my other sisters, “one of the most boring things” she had ever read. Brutally honest, but true. Since then, I periodically went back to that idea, tried to massage things in the context of what we had already written to make it readable. Then I realized that it was not salvageable, scrapped it, and completely rebuilt it—purposely not looking at any of the original—with an outline. Finally, after 25 years, give or take, it’s almost ready to begin the rough draft.
My point is, outlining is a necessary step for me. If I don’t, I run the risk of ruining an idea with no guarantee I’ll ever be able to bring it back. I’ve learned, however, that there are outlines, and then there are OUTLINES! What I mean by that is when I write an outline, it’s important for me to avoid trying to write the book in an outline. Overly detailed summaries tend to get in the way, as they can stifle the creative process. When I outline, I try to insert the major points, but leave the details to be worked out when I’m writing. Thus, I usually use paragraph form (I find point form gets out of control at the slightest provocation) of about 200-250 words per chapter, and that’s enough to give me a framework from which I can write a story.
I know other people like other methods—and that’s fine! Everyone has something that works for them. My brother prefers to work from a point form outline, and though I usually consider his outlines to be a little long, he’s gotten better about just including the points and not embellishing on them. The screenshot I’ve included is an example of one of my paragraph outlines. Yes, this is a spoiler, as it’s a paragraph from an upcoming novel—it shouldn’t spoil it much as I tried to choose something that would confuse rather than give you any real information!
Now, I don’t always follow my outlines exactly. In fact, there are often many changes in the end product from what I had planned. No outline is perfect, and thoughts and ideas will often come to me when I write. I like to think these little tangents make things better. But without a starting point, I just don’t get very far. As a wise man once said: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Some writers, like Don, have the ability to carry their plans in their heads. I’m not one of them!
To every rule, there is, of course, an exception. The one experience I have working without an outline was A Summer in Brighton, which I co-authored with Lelia Eye. Lelia and I have a shared document which lists a collection of ideas—more than 50 in all! It was approaching November, and we decided we wanted to try the whole NaNoWriMo challenge (just ourselves to see if we could do it). So we chose an idea we had, set out some vague parameters, and started writing. It worked, to an extent. By the time the end of the month rolled around, we had completed about ¾ of the novel. At that point, we took stock and debated a few points, made a few decisions, and finished it up, still without an outline. To this day, I still don’t know how we managed it!
There you have it. That’s, in a nutshell, how the beginning stages of my process goes. I hope you enjoyed the glimpse into how the twists and turns work for me!