On Writing: When Outlines Attack

Back in my early days of novel writing, I was addicted to reading how-to books. I raced through one after another with barely a breath between them, let alone time to apply what I’d just read. Eventually, I became disgusted with my lack of progress after eight years of working on the same novel and decided to read a book and actually do the exercises in it. That book was The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray:

“A dynamic 52-week program to help you produce a finished novel…one weekend at a time.”

I can already hear the groans of the writers in the audience who sit down to a blank sheet of paper and start writing a novel with not one bit of a plan in mind. Bear with me. 🙂

On Weekend 1, I started with character sketches and completed one for each of my characters. I progressed to the characters’ back stories, their dreams, the contents of their closets, and then it was time for storyboarding, sketching out scenes, and setting the stage. I’ll admit I was having fun in those early weeks, exploring and discovering.

Soon I had a 3-column table listing every scene that would eventually be in my novel in excruciating detail. I was ready to sit down and write. And that I did, right up to the last quarter of the book where I stopped dead and lost all interest in finishing.

The following year, I showed up for a writing workshop at my local library. We were told to bring our in-progress novels and any other materials that we had created to facilitate the writing process. As we went around the table, each person held up a chapter or two and told a similar tale about how they had sat down to a blank page, begun writing, and hadn’t gotten very far. Then, it was my turn. I pushed my hand truck up to the table and started unloading my specimens. [click on graphic to enlarge]

My turn to share at the writing workshop

The shock and horror on the faces of the other participants will never leave my memory. It was like I was the star of a circus freak show.

When I finished my spiel, the instructor stood up and said something so simple and obvious, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t thought of it before. But it was truly a light-bulb moment for me [click on graphic to enlarge]:

You must unlearn what you have learned.

Then she turned to the others and said, “She needs to do less plotting and outlining, but you need to do a bit more.”

I barely heard the rest of it because my brain had jumped into high gear. I realized she was right. I had already written the novel in summary form and dreaded writing it again. A few years later, I would study personality typing tools like Myers-Briggs and realize that I am an unstructured person by nature who had been forcing myself to operate in a super-structured way for an extended period of time. That mistake had sucked the creativity and fun out of the writing process.

“If I had a plot that was all set in advance, why would I want go through the agony of writing the novel? A novel is a kind of exploration and discovery, for me at any rate.”  —Chaim Potok

From that point on, I did away with the tomes of reconnaissance on my characters. When I had an idea for a new novel, I’d jot down some notes and play with the idea like it was a piece of clay, mushing it this way and that until I saw something I liked. Over the course of the writing process, I’d record a bare-bones list of scenes, maybe 1-2 sentences for each scene. Sometimes the scene had already been written. Sometimes it hadn’t and I didn’t want a good idea to slip through the sieve that is my brain.

The skeletal structure of my outline made it extremely flexible. I could delete or add ideas whenever the mood hit. It was also helpful as a Cliff Notes-type tool to remind me what I had already written, so I didn’t have to waste time rereading chapters before getting down to the task of writing. Perhaps the best part of such an outline is that it makes the dreaded synopsis, a submissions requirement of many publishers, much easier to write because it is already in “tell/don’t show mode,” which is how a synopsis should be written unlike the novel itself.

I’ve seen debates online where writers claim their approach to writing is the better method. Writing organically, or not, is a good thing only if that is how you write best. If it’s not, forcing yourself to work that way is a major chore. And let’s face it, writing is hard enough when you’re doing it in a manner that is true to your personality type.

With that said, I do think it sometimes helps to sprinkle a pinch of “opposite function” into the stew. For example, when you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you feel yourself floating off into space, maybe a bit of a plan would help. And if you’re recording every last detail in an outline before you even begin writing and find that you’re stuck, maybe it’s time to put away the outline, take a notebook outside and just start writing whatever comes into mind. These kinds of tricks often help to awaken the part of your brain that’s having a long siesta.

In 2009, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an exercise in which you write a 50,000-word novel in one month. I started on November 1st with the barest hint of an idea and had to come up with 1,667 words of pure, unthought-out originality every day. I managed to churn the words out for about half the month until my novel The Benefactor was published and book promotion took precedence. However, I did end up with about 28,000 words of a novel that I was looking forward to continuing. I planned to proceed in the same manner—without a plan—but because of the complexity of the story, I repeatedly found myself in a labyrinth of dead ends. I wasted a lot of time before I gave in and wrote out a brief outline to make sense of the various twists and turns and to gear up for an equally complex second half.

As a technical writer in a my day job, I’m happy to plan out the details in advance to be sure my documentation covers all the bases. At night, I prefer to be a bit more creative and meander the various paths that could lead to the end of a novel. But I’m most comfortable doing that with a crude map in hand, just in case I get lost along the way. That’s who I am.

I’d love to hear about your light-bulb moments in writing or self-discovery.

 

Typical Day in the Life of a Writer

7 AM – Wake up early, roll out of bed, and go for a walk. This is part of the writing process, you tell yourself; the beauty of nature opens your mind and allows your thoughts to combine in new and creative ways…

8 AM – After doing a few floor exercises to tone your saggy writer’s butt, shower and don your lucky writing sweater. Sit down to a breakfast of oatmeal with walnuts and raisins. You can’t concentrate on writing when you’re worried about the state of your ass or when the grumbling of your stomach is louder than the whisper of your thoughts.

9 AM – Read both newspapers cover to cover. That way, if you don’t have any luck writing your novel, the anger inspired by the jackasses who share your world will lead to a passionate blog post.

10 AM – Call a friend to vent your frustration about the jackasses who share your world. “Can you believe the Sanitation Head staged a work slowdown during the blizzard but the Mayor fired the EMS Director because his guys couldn’t get through the unplowed snow to save people’s lives?”

11 AM – Feeling a bit peckish, but the sorry state of your ass prevents you from eating again until at least noon. Start to get ready to write. Assemble your BIC 4-color pen, multi-colored college-ruled notebooks, a Papermate mechanical pencil with pink eraser, AlphaSmart Neo word processor, lap desk, the latest draft of the novel, notes to self, list of scenes, various pages of scribblings, and your winged, Goth, fairy girl figurine, a tangible representation of your Muse. Set everything up just so on the living room sofa and coffee table. Grab a throw in case it gets chilly. Satisfied that all is in order, look at the clock. It’s noon. Yay!

12 PM – Open refrigerator and stare at shelves. Close door of refrigerator, open door of pantry, and stare at shelves. Repeat three times. Sniff a few of the leftovers, pick one, and pop it into the microwave. As lunch heats, stare out the back window and allow nature to continue to form your thoughts in new and creative ways. Beep beep beep. Chow time.

1 PM – After using the bathroom, because there’s no concentrating with a full bladder, look in the mirror and notice the patch of dry, flaky skin between your eyebrows. Apply some moisturizer on the spot. Smile wide. Hmmmm. Get out the expired box of Crest Whitestrips and apply them to your top and bottom chompers. And while you’re still in the bathroom, grab your tweezers and get rid of that stray hair that’s ruining the arch of your right eyebrow.

2 PM – As you pass the computer in your home office on your way down to the sofa to write, sign in to Twitter and tweet “The Mayor is a boob.” Sign into Facebook and watch the video of GloZell using Nads to rip her armpit hair out. Laugh hysterically. Fool. You should know…you tried that once with Zip meltable wax and it hurt like a bitch. Not to mention what it did to your college roommate’s soup pot. Shhhhh.

3 PM – Get comfortable on the sofa, lap desk in position. Stare into space. Tilt your head the other way and stare into space some more. Write the date at the top of the page. Draw a few speckled amoeba at the bottom-right corner of the paper. Stare out the window. Aaaaah, let nature do its work. Meet the contemptuous gaze of your cat. The little furry bastards always let you know exactly what they think of you, don’t they? You lookin’ at me? Giggle. Jump up and run to mirror and say that line over and over again in a DeNiro accent. Giggle some more.

4 PM – Tea time at the inn. Yay!! Put the kettle on. Warm the tea pot. Select the right tea. Will you be writing an Earl Grey kind of scene or maybe the White Pomegranate is the one? Set up a tray with a china tea cup, tea strainer, tea cozy, Demarara sugar cubes, festive napkins, and a plate of…open pantry door, stare at shelves. Close pantry door. Open pantry door again and have another look. Climb up on a chair and find that stale box of Scoobie Snacks and arrange the dog-biscuit shaped cookies on a delicate china plate. Carry the tray into the living room and settle down with your throw and steaming cup of tea. Stare out the window and sip. Feel the creative thoughts permeate your brain with the help of the steam drifting up your nostrils. Organic writing at its best.

5 PM – Holy Cow. Dinner time already? Yay!!!

6 PM – Realize it’s been just about a week since your last blog entry. Crap! Run upstairs to computer and whip up a quick blog about how ripping out your armpit hair with hot wax is a lot like writing.

7 PM – Stand, stretch, yawn. Gather up all the writing materials for your novel from the living room sofa and put them away. Everyone knows you can’t summon up creativity at night. That’s a morning pursuit.