Tag Archives: outlining

Out, out, damned line

The more I write, the more I think about the craft of writing, and the more I think about the craft of writing, the more I think about how badly I screwed up by not thinking about it more when I was just starting.

Of course, when I was just starting, I hadn’t thought about it all that much, so I couldn’t have done otherwise… and yeah, thoughts like that are ultimately pretty useless.

The point of this is that I’ve got this story idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few years now and I’ve just started actually putting words to paper (or, y’know, words to pixels or whatever, you know what I mean) on it, and … I mean, the idea is nifty and all, but… okay, I have to digress further.

With my other stories, it sort of felt like, from the premise, the story just wanted to get up and go. Like the conflict started up and took off immediately, like a cat startled out of slumber by a zucchini squash.

netflix and chill GIF

With this one, there’s less of that immediate impulse to action. So it feels like the story needs something. It needs guidance. Or, I dunno, maybe it’s not fully formed yet and it needs more time to incubate.

So I spent my session today doing something I’ve never done — in advance, anyway — for a story: outlining it.

That’s right, I went back to high school and I made an outline.

The outline sucks, it’s vague as heck and it reads like every action / spy / thriller movie you’ve ever heard of, but y’know, it’s an outline. And once I had it down, I started fleshing it out with possibilities.

And man, it’s weird. Because in my other work, I usually don’t plan all that much. I just strap a lead on the story and try to hold on while it rushes off to wherever it’s gonna rush off to. But what I noticed is that, in my other stories, they end up wandering around, feeling lost in the middle.

I don’t want to get lost on this one. So I’m trying something new.

Will it work? I don’t have a clue.

Anyway, here’s another cat gif, because cat gifs are awesome and it’s Friday and that’s awesome.

cat attack GIF

Outline, Schmoutline: A Cautionary Tale for Pantsers

I’ve kvelled for most of the summer about my difficulties with my current writing project. Those difficulties are made all the worse by the fact that I’ve been languishing in the mushy middle of the book; that part where the beginning has happened and ended, and we’re working toward an ending that will take up the last quarter of the book. Meanwhile, however, things seem not to be happening with much urgency or importance. I mean, parts are moving that have to move, but much like a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific, there’s some drift happening, and it’s hard to be sure moment-to-moment whether it’s good drift or bad drift. There’s nothing but deep blue sea out here. It all looks the same.

This, to be sure, is where my general go-to strategy for writing hits the wall like a midget riding a crazed pygmy bull. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, because I just can’t be bothered to make outlines. I tell myself and people who ask me (woe betide them) it’s because I write organically, whatever the fargo that means. In my head, it means that I craft the characters and the general situation and sort of “listen” to the characters as they “feel” their way through the situation and find their way through it. In practice, that means I’m basically making it up as I go along. The problem there is that Rome doesn’t get built in a day, and a novel is not written in a week. I’ve been working now for about three, four months on this project, head down, churning out the word count like a good penmonkey, but each day it’s the same. I know generally what has to happen next, I write it, I leave some notes to myself about tomorrow, I repeat. Which is fine for making my word count goals, but maybe not so fine for the story as a whole.

And making the word count goal has been difficult lately, not just because I’m in the doldrums of summer, but because I feel down to my bones the “lostness” of the project right now. It’s hard to make myself write 1000 words a day when I’m not sure where those words are leading me. This feeling would be very easy to mistake for Writer’s Block. In fact, Past Me would have gladly called it Writer’s Block and used it as an excuse to take a seven year sabbatical from the project. It looks like Writer’s Block, it smells like Writer’s Block. But it’s not Writer’s Block. I’m just lost.


Because there’s nobody really steering the ship. It’s impossible to have the oversight I need to make sure the project is on track while also pushing out about 1000 words a day on this thing. All I can really do is watch the road directly in front of me and make sure I’m not driving into the ditch.

But that’s a problem, because I’m missing the road signs along the way, I’m missing landmarks, I’m not getting much feel for the arc of the story as a whole. I know where it needs to go generally, but it’s been a long time since I bothered to check the map and see whether I’m on course.

And what’s a map to a writer? Unfortunately for pantsers like me, it’s an outline.

And for a month now, I’ve felt that the narrative is adrift, that I don’t know where I’m going, that I’m getting a little lost. Time for a map check.

So tonight, instead of sitting down to pound out 1000 words of narrative, I resolved to do some outlining. I skimmed through what I’ve written so far and summed up the main points of each chapter. Which taught me that, some boring exposition aside, a few less-than-meaningful interactions aside, a few unnecessary characters who will be pruned in future drafts aside, the narrative actually clips along pretty well. Once I get the thing sanded down, it’s gonna hum, baby. Outlining also taught me that I’ve forgotten several details — even some key and important things I planted early in the draft which need to play major roles in the end of the book. They’d just slipped my mind, which is not surprising, because drafting a full-length novel and making it up as you go along is a little bit like juggling the entire contents of your kitchen at once, and then somebody hands you a baby.

So, with outline of everything I’ve written in hand, I’m ready for tomorrow’s session, which is going to be roughly outlining the back half of the book. It won’t be even a quarter as detailed as the outline of what I’ve already written, but what it will do is tell me the plot points I need to steer for when I get adrift again in the coming months of drafting. I’ve already seen, just from retracing my steps over the past couple chapters, what I need to do with the next three or four chapters. Which makes going back to work on the draft that much easier, because I don’t have to make it all up on the spot. I don’t have to find my way across the Pacific just by glancing at the night sky.

I’m here to tell you that I felt silly spending an hour and a half writing out an outline for a book I’ve already written half of. It’s going to be arduous work completing the outline for the prospective ending, especially knowing (as I already do) that that ending will change in some way, shape, or form by the end. But I’m also here to tell you that I see more clearly than I have in months the path that the book has been on and the path it needs to take. Foreign as it felt, the outline has reinvigorated me at a time when I desperately needed it.

So, my advice to my future self is:

  1. Write.
  2. Write some more.
  3. Outline what you’ve written.
  4. Write some more.
  5. Throw the outline out the window.
  6. Make a new outline.
  7. Repeat.

A Narrative Sugar Rush

Much of the process of writing is boring. Fun-boring, perhaps, the way that putting together a 1000-piece puzzle is fun if not YEAH LET’S GO FINISH THAT PUZZLE WOOO fun. You spend much of the time silently puzzling out the … puzzles … of how all the little fiddly bits fit together. If I want to have that character jump over a cliff to save his dog later in the novel, how do I foreshadow that moment earlier in the text? If that character has a deathly allergic reaction to oranges in chapter three, can I somehow twist that for the resolution in chapter twenty-seven?  My character seems to want to collect postcards from everywhere she visits by the end of chapter twelve… did I have her collecting the tongues of her vanquished foes instead in chapter eight? Better go back and revisit…

You slog through those moments, creating back story, laying foundations for the future, discovering odd little curiosities about your characters along the way, and meanwhile the story meanders forward not unlike a stream: a little cascade over rocks here, a long slow flow of calm water there, a spontaneous whirling eddy over here (not to be confused with Whirling Eddie, the circus performer)… but stories have a life of their own, and just as a somnambulant stream can turn into a vicious torrent with a summer storm, so too can a story surge to life with the proper impetus.

Like, oh, say, the hero deciding she’s had enough of the idiots around her spouting theoretical scientific mumbo-jumbo about time travel and alternate futures and the dangers of wandering through free-standing space-time portals without observing all applicable safety protocols, then running out of the safehouse she doesn’t believe is actually a safehouse, straight into the cold steel arms of one of the very robots the mad scientist was just warning her about.

Or, you know, something. Purely hypothetical, that. Definitely didn’t just write that in my new novel today, over lunch. Nope. No robots or mad scientists here. What are you looking at? Get away from my non-robot-involving, non-mad-scientist-featuring draft.

I wasn’t planning to write that moment today, but all of a sudden my hero decided she’d had enough of sitting around listening to exposition and decided to blow the story the fargo up by walking out of it (and of course, karmically, [is karmically a word?]) walking right into it.

I’ve enjoyed drafting the new novel, but today I couldn’t stop writing. Just like that moment where you can’t put the book down, I kept saying to myself, just one more sentence. Just one more paragraph. Just see what happens next. And I can’t wait for my next drafting session, wherein I’ll get to find out what does happen to my hero next. Because, while I have the general plot for the story mapped out, her getting captured by robots was not necessarily something I expected. Er, not captured by robots. She was, um. Inconvenienced. By… aphids. In her garden. Tomatoes. Very frustrating. No spoilers here.

But expected or not, I think you have to embrace these little detours when they crop up. Outlines are great, and having the end in mind is a fine way to craft a story, but I firmly believe that stories, like life, have minds of their own, and if authors don’t allow those stories a bit of leeway to stretch their legs and explore the side streets a little bit, well, you miss a lot of the fun along the way.

And, as always, I fully recognize that this particular diversion might suck. It might not work with the narrative as a whole. It might have to get cut completely from the book when I get down to the editing part. The sucky part. The I-want-to-kill-myself-with-white-out part.

But you can fix all that in post, as they say.

For now, it’s time to stop and smell the robots.

Roses. Smell the roses.

No robots here.

*hears the whir of servos*

*goes to investigate*

I Don’t Know What I’m Writing

I mentioned a few posts back the struggle I’m having with telling the current novel; how I’m trying to figure out perspectives and pacing and flavor and all that other stuff. The story is there, and sound, I said, but the voice is missing. And I thought that everything was cool aside from that — that it’s no problem not having the “exactly right” words to tell the story I’m trying to tell, as long as the story I’m trying to tell is the right one.

And I still think that’s right. To a point. Because the story is what matters; the story is what resonates. Everything else fits in around the story, like the transmission and the axles and the fans and the tubes all fit in around the engine in a car. Sort out the engine, and build the rest of the stuff to fit, right?

Except that’s not the whole story, either. A solid engine is great, but an engine does nothing without the rest of the car. The engine puts force behind the vehicle, but without the axles in place, without the wheels to drive the car forward, without the gas tank and the transmission fluid and all the wiring and tubes, the engine just sits there and putters away. It’s all connected; it all works together.

So it is with story. The right story might purr like a kitten, but it’s incomplete without the wheels of the proper setting, the transmission of a proper tone, and the fuel injection system of the perfect characters.

What does that mean?

Well, I’m figuring that out, but I’m also realizing something. I can allow myself to forego any concerns about the “other stuff” and just focus on the plot, the story, but if I do that, I’m going to have to build all that other crap after the fact. And what happens when you build all the different elements of a thing separate from the whole? If I build first an engine, then a body around it, then the wheels to propel it, then the axles to drive it… I’m going to end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of parts that I scavenge from the depths of my brain based on what suits my needs at the time. It’ll work, maybe, and it’ll look generally like the novel I have in mind, but it’s not going to drive real smooth. It’s not going to have clean lines. It won’t win awards.

I’m not much of an outliner by nature. I’m a procrastinator, a figure-it-out-as-it-comes kinda guy, a pantser, as I think the industry calls us. And I think there’s something to be said for taking an organic approach to storybuilding, to letting characters to an extent drive the story, to allowing the story to develop its own twists and turns and energy without meticulously planning it out in advance.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any plan. Just as you build a car with an overall design in mind (headlights here, this shape to the body, this kind of seat); just as you plant a garden with the preferred outcome in mind (carrots over here, tomatoes in this aisle, luminescent cabbage here); a story needs guidelines to grow. Even if you’re not a plotter, you have to know some things before you take the first steps.

Who is my character? What drives her? What is she afraid of? What obstacles will harry her? Where does the struggle take her? What should her story teach a reader? How should the story “feel”?

A story can, will, and probably should grow organically to fill in gaps and create surprise in the mind of the readers (and the author!). But for a gap to exist, you have to have the substance around the gap. The story isn’t going to build skeleton and muscle and blood all on its own. The framework has to be there to be built upon. And that means taking a hard look at the planning that’s gone into the story so far.

If I’m honest, I’ve sold short the preparatory work on this project. The story, as a result, is looking more like the Frankenstein’s monster than the smooth, sharp Cadillac I want. The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to start; never too late to turn the floodlights on and take the hard look at the story that it needs. And, seeing what it needs, the only thing left to do is to keep writing. Rather than just letting the story shape itself, shape it with the end in mind. Start taking stabs at the tone-setting language, start planting now the seeds which must blossom by the end.

Yes, you can fix it all in post. But that’s a lot of work to shrug off on your future self.

Time to face facts and start doing the legwork this story deserves.

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