Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An Experiment in Outlining

Hi everyone!

I had an interesting experience last night. First off, my wife has started transcribing all her old journals...which she has kept since she was in elementary school...consistently. So, the computer has been somewhat monopolized of late, which means I'm doing any and all writing (or writing-related activities) by hand, on honest-to-goodness paper with a real ink pen. I feel like I'm a kid again! It's actually been really fun listening to my wife laugh at her past self, and I've even enjoyed writing by hand again, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

I've never really gotten the hang of outlining. I realize that it is a powerful authoring tool, but I've always shied away from it because I didn't want to spoil the ending for myself. I've always been afraid that if I already knew what was going to happen in a story, I'd have no more motivation or desire to write it. However, my current WIP has not been cooperating...not for weeks. It is as hard as hickory knots! So last night, in an effort finally vanquish this irksome problem, I sat down with my paper and clipboard and started drafting a general outline. I actually got the idea from Teralyn's recent series of posts "How to Prep for a Book" (specifically posts #3,4).

I decided that I needed to get at least the basic framework down on paper so I'd have a sort of road map when I get stuck (which is happening all too frequently and regularly). I've been telling myself that knowing the basic plot line shouldn't ruin things for me because 1) I'm older and more mature than I was the last time I tried outlining a story (it has literally been six or seven years and I've changed a lot since then), and 2) I can still look forward to seeing how my characters react to each other and events! This is what I'm really excited about now.

All the same, if my pseudo-outlining idea doesn't improve things with my WIP, I think I might let it rest and germinate for a while. I've got three or four other ideas that I'm also really excited about, so I won't be wanting for something to write.

How about you guys? For all you fellow pantsers out there, why don't you like outlining? And what do you do when your story just won't come out? For all you outliners (whom I confess I envy a little), what motivates you to write when you already know the story? And for everybody: how do you know when it's okay to throw in the towel, even for a little while?

I look forward to hearing from all of you!


  1. I used to hate outlining, but I came to realize that I was just lazy. I too believed that outlining would ruin the fun of discovering the story as I went. However, not plotting gave me several unfinished novels. And those I did finish had me pulling my hair out in revisions.

    So when I wrote my steampunk novel, I decided I would outline. I had never done it before. EVER. So I followed Holly Lisle's Plot Outline Clinic (which I paid a whopping $5 for; I think it may be $10 now), and I created an outline. While plotting, I realized that the fun of discovering the story was just as fun in plotting as pantsing. And! I was able to see what was working and what wasn't working on a macro level. I could delete, rearrange, and add scenes without having invested weeks of writing into it.

    Then, with the outline in hand, I wrote the story. Very rarely did I come to a point where I couldn't advance. I knew what was coming next, and somehow that was liberating. I didn't have to stress over ZOMGWHATDOIWRITENEXT? I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Until that thing was finished.

    I'm glad I outlined. I went from pantser to plotter in a single project.

    As for your other questions: When I DO get stuck, I reexamine the last scene or two and see if there is something there that isn't quite right. Then I fix it until I'm happy with it (or at least content) and move on.

    Motivation comes from seeing the story unfold through the character's eyes. Even with an outline, the MC still surprises me. She'll say things or do things I don't expect. Interactions with other characters arise that I didn't think of before. There's a particular scene in the middle of my novel where my outline bullet point just had a basic, vague escape idea. When I fleshed it out while writing, it turned into this epic, crazy, awesome, surprising scene. It got my heart racing.

    An outline may be the bare bones of a story, but the story itself comes out in the writing. Trust me. Knowing the plot doesn't make it any less fun. ;)

    And when do I know when to stop for a bit? When I'm raging against the computer. If I'm YARGHing and BLARGing and FRMPFFLEing, then I know that I need to step away for a day or a week.

    (Sorry for the long comment!)

  2. I felt the same way about outlining. Then I discovered if I know something of how the plot went, that left me more freer to discover the characters, relationships, and nuances of the story. It actually boosted my creativity! There's lots of different techniques for outlining, and I think once you find the right one, it's a big enhancement for your writing.

  3. I haven't given into the total detailed outline, however, I do skeletal plotting. I like to see the general point A > point B > etc. Because I do it on a high level, it leaves room for some discovery.

    I try to have an idea of beginning and end and put a little of what I'd like to see happening in the middle. I leave myself a little "pantser" satisfaction with the ability to take little fun detours here and there.

  4. I never outline unless I can't figure out what to do next, or until I've gotten my draft completely finished and I want to make sure all the elements are there. Kind of backwards, I know.

  5. I almost always outline my stories at some point, either before I start or after I've written part of the beginning. What motivates me is the writing part--once I have the story all set, I can't wait to add details and flesh out the characters.

  6. I'm sorry that you're stuck!! AHHH! Hopefully you can get that knot undone soon. Not only do I have advice, I have a story for you! Typical, I know.

    Honestly, I just have fun with my writing. Why not? This means I had to come up with a solution to outlining for my fiction, because less face it, at some point it does need to be done. (yuck!) I've broken outlining for fiction into several steps that I cover in my revisions. It's easy and doesn't kill my attention span (which is about as good as a fish's). It works for me, after years of trial and error.

    I love seeing the magic happen with my first draft as I transform it into something just shy of brilliant(okay, maybe that's being hopeful), something readable is closer to what happens. Before I announce a MS done, I do need that visual that I did in fact cover my bases, ALL my bases and a simple outline would never do that anyway, not for twisted plots like I weave. I would need details, and I might as well just slot those details into a MS and write.

    I've only ever been seriously stuck once. And I mean, I-have-no-clue-what-to-do stuck. I wrote "IMMORTAL DIES" on the screen. I had no idea how to kill an immortal (sounds impossible right?), and it was a big part of the plot. What to do? I needed a challenge, I guess. I pretended I knew what I was doing and kept writing. I could see all the other scenes and had to get them down while they were alive in my little brain. Still it nagged at me, because if I couldn't figure that out, my entire plot was garbage. I reached the end, and still had no answer. Damn. 75k down the drain.

    I came back at least 3 months later with the answer. Deleted my comment and wrote in the scene. How did I find my answer? I worked on my next project and forgot about it. This new character I'd made, for this new book, he knew how to kill an immortal. Can you believe my luck? It was so simple too, I was just over thinking it.

    Point of my story is that sometimes we need a break to be brilliant. Keep writing, watch your wife laugh some more, and it will come. As for an outline, make it fun, try different things and come up with your own solution. Know the rules, try them, but why follow them if they aren't working for you? You're creative, make up your own way to outline.

    This is my advice to get unstuck, and yes I have done this, and yes it is fun-- Read what you wrote so far. Do you know how it ends? Why not write the end. Then go in reverse, what has to happen to get you from A to B? (OMG it sounds like an outline!!) Something has to happen, anything! Write down those ideas and that whip up a few scenes-- no matter where they fall in the story. Before you know it, you'll be back on track. If not... damn. 75k wasted.

  7. He he. You know I can't outline. I try, really I do, but I can't do it. When I'm stuck though, I work on something else. Think about my story some more and eventually it figures itself out. :P I also go back and read what I've written so far and that usually gets me back in the mood to write it. Good luck!!!