Writers are supposed to know what to say all the time. They can come up with a
story in an instant ("It was a dark and stormy night..."), a humorous speech
when they're called upon at a banquet with no advance notice, and a profound,
life-changing inscription four seconds after a stranger hands them a book and
asks "Would you inscribe this to my brother-in-law and say something he'd like?"
When I first agreed to write a blog for FreshFiction.com and then realized the
date it would be published was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I knew exactly what
I would write about: realizing a dream, or how great it is to be a woman and to
be able to write what I want, when I want, and without fear. As the deadline
began to nag at me, I started working on it, then continued a couple of days
later in the car on the way to a booksigning... only to realize the piece was
coming across more as a kind of political column than anything else. Well,
that's just not me and it wasn't long (at about the end of three more
paragraphs) before I was really unhappy with the whole thing and chucked it
right off the computer screen with a couple of words that began with (@# and
ended with (*$!.
Back to square one. Say, am I supposed to capitalize that?
So I took a quick look at what other authors have blogged about on FreshFiction,
but that didn't help much. Sure, it's informative, but it's not like I can say,
"Oh, she wrote about such-and-such, so I'll write about that, too!" Come on, I
can be more creative than that. But a funny thing happened on the way to the
blog: I came to the realization that although I have a deadline for this blog
(something I've learned is essential to my psyche because it forces me to
actually get something done), I don't have direction. It's like I need a
supervisor to tell me what to do next. That's an awful thing for a writer,
because almost every writer I know wants, more than anything, to be
self-employed. And when you're self-employed, you are your own supervisor.
At last-- I've found a topic!
I know you're trying to make sense of the way my mind jumps around. Don't.
It'll just give you a headache.
I love a good outline, because it's like a good supervisor.
Note that I didn't say I love outlinING, which at its best can be a fun process,
or at its worst as pleasant as cleaning your own teeth with a rusty
screwdriver. There's nothing quite as good at pulling blood from your eyeballs
as staring at a computer cursor sitting solidly on a blank line after the phrase
Chapter Five. Add your thoughts spinning in slow motion around the fact that
your plot calls for some action and you can't think of a thing to do about it,
and you start thinking favorably about that toolbox in the garage and the piece
of popcorn stuck in your back molar.
But like any good supervisor, the outline will not go away until it gets what it
wants. And when it does, it will make you feel good and make you want to do
more. And the more you do, the better the outline, and the more productive you
get, and so the more you accomplish. Until voila-- you have a nifty skeleton on
which to build your next fabulous (because that's what it will be, right?)
Pah, you're thinking. Lots of people write without outlines. Lots of people
do, of course, but more people, more authors, don't. And definitely not me. I
need a good supervisor, one who not only gives me a deadline but tells me where
to go (in only the nicest way) when I need it. I know this for a fact, because
once upon a time I tried my hand at writing a book, the third book in a
contract, in a supervisor-free environment. The deadline was past, but that was
okay because I had written two media tie-ins for the same publisher instead of
working on this book, and therefore they were okay with that. Since it was book
number three and I had turned in a good proposal for it, they never asked for an
outline like they had for book two (book one had been completed when it was
So there I was, tra-la-la-ing along in my manuscript, happy as a puppy in a
bucket of bacon bits. Typing madly away until I got to page 519 of what would
eventually become a 651 page novel (almost 191,000 words-- I am not kidding),
when everything came to a dead, dull STOP.
There's an old episode of Twilight Zone (at least, I think it was TZ) where a
group of people in a diner interact until things go sour... then do it all over
again. And again. It's kind of an early Groundhog Day thing, except that
finally, at the end of the episode, all the people in the dinner go outside to
finally track down the source of the sound they've been hearing off and on the
entire time. The sound, it seems, is The Great Typewriter In The Sky, being
driven by The Writer Who Knows Not Where She Is Going With The Story. And in my
world-- the one of the book I was working on-- that writer was definitely me.
On the ground was a Really Bad Guy, aptly bloody and deservedly dead. Somehow
everything in the previous 590 pages had come together in this one sacred
instant, an enormous undertaking considering the number of characters, mystery,
murder, romance, supernatural powers, and the near-destruction of the planet and
civilization itself. Except that the rest of the folks I had written into
existence had no idea where to go from there. They stood in a figurative circle
and stared up at the sky-- at me-- and I could hear them all asking, "What now?"
I won't repeat my language here lest I offend delicate virtual ears. I managed
to finish the book, of course, but like the song by the Blood, Sweat and Tears,
I sure did the spinning wheel thing for a nerve-wracking amount of time before
figuring things out. Final Impact was published in early 1997, and even had a
follow-up novel, Red Shadows, come out at the end of 1998.
But it was the very last novel I ever wrote without a supervisor.
10 comments posted.
Thanks for the great blog on the value of outlines. I'm a linear thinker, so I often think in outline (a skill that isn't always appreciated!).
(Maria Munoz 12:02pm January 17, 2011)
I agree. Without an outline all the material for the novel just gets out of control. It's too big and too complicated. Of course, I revise my outline constantly as I go.
(Alex Washoe 12:30pm January 17, 2011)
I'm a reader and can see your point. I couldn't write a book for the life of me!
(Brenda Rupp 5:31pm January 17, 2011)
I can understand why an outline works well. At work though, I like to write some things as the inspiration flows then go back and block out the logic to complete it (my flow never seems to take me to the final point), fill in missing things, edit out what goes off topic, etc. I can't see my favorite approach working for a novel, though.
(Carol Drummond 8:52pm January 17, 2011)
I've never written a novel but I've written plenty of essays. I'm glad you're good at writing outlines. I can't say that I am. But what we have in common is grasshopper minds. Though I haven't done this much lately, I sometimes used to be so amazed at what I'd find myself thinking of at a certain point that I decided to go backwards and retrace every step I took to get to the present subject. Sometimes, that was really amazing.
(Sigrun Schulz 10:10pm January 17, 2011)
I must say that you wrote a very interesting and informative blog. It was certainly different from all the other ones that I've read in the past, and I've learned a great deal. I'll also have to keep your tips in mind. A few friends have been trying to persuade me to write a book, and I've been tossing the idea around. I wish you great success with yours.
(Peggy Roberson 10:59pm January 17, 2011)
I know all about outlining, but prefer to just write the story simple. When I stop to outline, I lose my thought line and then have to use tricks to get it back, like when you lose anything, you have to go backwards to figure where you put it. I know, some people swear by it and love the structure and the destinations and endings likely to be reached.
(Alyson Widen 1:31pm January 18, 2011)