The Dreaded Outline

I am not an outliner. I never have been. I most likely never WILL be. I enjoy the ways the story takes me, the art of crafting it and the surprise of writing it was my characters take me along their story. This, however, is not how you sell books, by all accounts. Unless you’re naturally good at your characters sticking to what’s important, you have to have some idea where the story is supposed to go.

Several years ago, someone sent me an email telling me he could make me a writer, all I had to do was sign up for his classes and he’d take me from a wannabe writer into someone published and profitable and beloved by all. I could have been J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers before they were them by his accounts. He’d helped hundreds of writers become kings of writing by his program.

I declined his offer and told him thanks but no thanks. Being maybe 25, I was probably a smartass about it. He took it upon himself to instant message me and ask me about my writing and my writing habits. Being 25 and know there was no way I was going to make writing a full-time gig, I answered off the cuff. I wasn’t interested in his program, I wasn’t going to pay him to tell me how to write and I honestly wasn’t sure why he was still talking to me. The thing I remember  most out of his comments and questions was when he asked me how often I wrote. I answered honestly, “I just write when inspiration strikes”. I did. And had inspiration strike me all the time. It wasn’t like  I considered myself anywhere near publishable work and I honestly wasn’t ready.

His next comment not only pissed me off, but it turned me off writing for a good long while. Every single time I see someone make a comment about how they were “talking to a girl who said they only write when inspired”, hackles instantly raise. He told me that unless I took my writing seriously and buckled down and started treating it like a job, I would never once be published. He continued with some scathing remarks about how I shouldn’t call myself a writer when all I did was dabble and gave me a tongue in cheek wish for good luck with my dribbling in the future. I know I’ve seen this person write for various functions and I know he’s done a pep talk for NaNoWriMo. I deleted it the minute I read his “talked with a young woman” line.

Since then I have deliberately shied away from any kind of structure to my writing because he basically told me I HAD TO. I shied away from deadlines and writing goals because if I was having a good day, I could crank out 5k. If I wasn’t I managed a couple of hundred. In the long run, I felt good if I’d written 10k in a week because my life wasn’t structured, I wasn’t grasping for time and I had the energy and creativity necessary to actually write. While his system was probably good for him, it would have crushed my creativity and spirit, much like his assumption that inspired writing wasn’t real writing or whatever it was he believed.

With this beast of a plot I’ve been nursing for the last ten years or better, I need outlines. I need a vague direction and something outlining the major plot points that need to happen. I need to know all the major events and I need to keep a timeline so when I get to book 6 or 123 or what have you, I’m not leaving plot inconsistencies. I need to have some kind of a wire frame that I can start to mold clay around. I refuse to force my characters into a cookie cutter, but at the same time, I have to have points to drive my car to, otherwise I’m just wasting gas.

Therefore, this next section has been helpful to me and I’m going to share a few things that I think will help and rebut a point he makes for those of us who are perfectionists.

Through National Novel Writer’s month, I have learned the beauty of daily writing quotas. Setting a goal for yourself is a plus. Setting an attainable goal is a double plus. For me, however, I will wrack myself with guilt if I don’t get those words done. When I fall behind on them, I have this rolling rock that smashes my flowers and tramples my grass and then as it gets bigger and bigger, I just give up writing altogether. I give up on the project and walk away.

This is why I didn’t finish my first NaNo.

I’ve learned the beauty of goals, but I have had to really teach myself that falling behind on my goals is okay. If there’s no pressure, I will still get it done, but I don’t have this insurmountable mountain building over my head. Write every day, fine. Yay. But I do it in my time, on my schedule and NOT first thing in the morning. Oh my GOD I am a ZOMBIE when I wake up for the first hour or two of my day. That includes while I’m at work. My brain doesn’t come online until the evening and the best time for me to write is after work before I cook dinner. That’s my sweet spot. That’s when I write. If I make 1600 words, YAY! If not, oh well. If I don’t write at all, it’s because that day has been crap. I pick back up the next day like nothing ever happened. I’m okay with this. No one is dogging me.

The second bit of advice comes in re-reading what you’ve written the day before. Yes, and no. I’m definitely one of those people who reads the last bit of what I wrote if I had to end in the middle of a scene, but if I go back and start reading everything I’ve written from the day before, I end up editing and making small changes and tweaks and wanting to re-write things and then, before I know it, I’ve wasted all the time I have for writing by being obsessive over having things right. That’s another thing I have to work on, not being ridiculous about perfection until editing, but I really think it can hamper my progress, especially if I’m on a deadline. On the other hand, it would stop me from having my main character take off his shoes twice in a scene.
The last bit of advice he gives is you should record your plot journey with dates and times and plot points so you can keep track of the linear flow. If you’re plotting a monstrosity like I am, you’ll need this to keep your story straight. He actually suggests a huge piece of butcher paper and sticky notes that roll up into a poster roll. I am in LOVE with this idea. Postits aren’t permanent, I can use my erasable pens and highlighters and super sticky sticky notes, tape it to the wall to work and then roll it up and put it away when not using it. BRILLIANT! I can divide the entire butcher paper in the three acts in the structure, have different colored notes for all the main characters and what their points will be in the scenes and make sure I’ve got my Opening, Beginning Disturbance, 1st Door, 2nd Door and Ending… everything else is just gravy!

But, since I’m not a complete planner, there is a lot that I can see that will need work, especially given the middle of Baby’s story is what I really want to tell and what I have the least amount of information for. For those of us who are hybrids, he recommends beginning with the LOCK system and writing the back cover copy for your book. From there, you can generate more ideas as they story develops. He recommends asking yourself these questions before progressing forward:

  • What is my character’s emotional state and the end of the scene?
  • How will he react in the next scene?
  • What is the next action my character needs to take?
  • What strong scene up ahead needs transitional scenes before it?
  • Do I need to add any new characters?
  • Has a character in the scene I’ve just written suggest other plot developments?

I’m not sure how many of those questions I would be using, but it at least gives me hope that I don’t have to plan everything and I can just set the framework and let my imagination soar when inspiration strikes.

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About Carrie Fulk Vaughn

Carrie Fulk Vaughn (C.V. Madison) is a licensed massage therapist, author of LGBTQIA, Urban fantasy, horror & romance. Gamer geek full of Mountain Dew and schadenfreude pie. Twitter addict. Ball jointed doll collector.

Posted on August 21, 2012, in For Writers. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Totally agree with you! I have never been an outliner but with this third book in the series, I had to outline it because I just knew I was all over the place with it. I really hated doing it, but it’s a must. I’m going to use those questions the next time I sit down to write a scene. Great post 🙂

  2. Outlining is one of the hardest things I’ve done. However, it’s a lot easier, I’ve found, with Scrivener. I can make notes, keep track of things, link stuff in…

    I’m glad it helped. I’d really recommend Bell’s books. They’re pretty solid, in my opinion. I also like Rayne Hall’s books on word loss and villains.

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