Why I Outline

Today on Twitter, instead of participating in word sprints with my cadre of awesome writerly pals, I hopped in on #NaNoPrep. We have one week to go until the second session of Camp NaNoWriMo comes barreling down on us in all its sleep-deprived, subsist-off-ramen, hunt-the-plot-bunnies, ignore-all-else glory. As we discussed the things we do to prepare ourselves for some madcap adventure, it quickly became apparent that there were two tribes in this camp- the pantsters and the planners (and a few of their half-breed children, lovingly dubbed the plantsters).

The pantsters fly by the seat of their pants. They are the happy-go-lucky authors blithely wandering out into the wilderness to see what happens. The planners are just that- planners. They’re happy to go on this crazy road trip, but, by golly, they’re taking a map with them.

Generally speaking, I’m a bit of a hybrid myself. I do a bit of both. But which banner I swear allegiance to entirely depends on what kind of campaign I’m on. When I’m writing short bits, it’s crazy adventure time- let’s see where this runaway train takes us. But that doesn’t work so well for me when I’m writing longer formats. So pretty much if it’s longer than three thousand words or so, I outline.

I used to not outline ever. I hated them. They constrained me. They stifled what the characters wanted to do. And I largely ignored them anyway and had to rewrite them later. I hated them. They conjured up the pain and misery that was Freshman English back at North Pole High School, where you couldn’t write a blessed thing, interesting or otherwise, unless it was first OUTLINED. Outlining was a tool used by teachers to force their students into non-creative submission. HATE.

Interestingly enough, I was busily writing a novel at the time. I loved that novel. And I refused to outline a word of it. So my characters ran all over this crazy world of mine, doing whatever popped into their heads. There were cowardly runaways and brazen attacks and nobody needed reasons for any of the silly stuff they did. They just did it. And I told myself, feeling wonderfully superior and oh-so authorly, that my characters led the story, not me, and surely this made me some sort of divine pen goddess or something.

I found out about a decade later that, no, really, it didn’t. I was churning out an impressive amount of words on paper, but little else. The process produced a ridiculously long, rambling, and utterly pointless story with no meaning, no lessons learned, and certainly no plot. It didn’t even really have a conclusion- just a big fight sequence at the end that seemed like a good place to stop. It was my baby. And I thought my baby was beautiful. Until one day…

By this time I was married and my wonderful husband, who was far less attached to my ugly little creation than I was, ever-so-gently asked me to outline the story and then we would figure out what it needed. “But I don’t outline,” I sputtered, scandalized. “The very idea!” He persisted. “I can’t work from outlines. They don’t work.” He persisted. “Bu- buuuu- noooo…” He finally convinced me, sometimes through the use of ice cream and/or back rubs.

So I sat down, cracked a few knuckles, and gathered the tools of my trade. Pen and paper in hand, he first asked who the bad guy was. I shrugged a little and jotted down a few things- random people, a war, some other junk, anything that was in conflict with my main character. It was a sloppy little mess. MC apparently fights with everyone. What was the conflict? husband asked. I scribbled a few more things. What was the climax?

I stared at the paper. I stared at him. I looked back at the paper. I studied my cheap Bic pen and wondered if I should have a nicer one. I looked at our very fine stripey sheets and tried to remember the last time I had washed them. I looked back at the paper. And then I felt horror rising in my throat. Eyes wide, I looked up at him, clattering away on his own keyboard, and asked in a hushed voice, “Honey… does my story have a climax?”

He looked back to me and asked gently, “Do you think it does?”

That was the moment I realized my baby was ugly. It had been ugly all this time. My friends had probably all thought it was ugly and just hadn’t had the heart to tell me. (This is why impartial beta readers are so important!) My family, too, had probably clucked their tongues behind my back and whispered what a shame it was. Everyone had known all along. Everyone but me.

I had worked on this story for almost fifteen years before I had this epiphany. So I plucked the characters out, because I loved them, and the basic problem, because it was still good, and I built them a cozy home. I outlined. I made believable and meaningful antagonists for my MC to butt her pretty little head against. I forced my characters to make sense. And I killed my darlings, oh so many of them. And then I rewrote the whole thing, word by word, in less than a year. It was glorious. It had a plot. My baby was all grown up.

And so I outline long works. Chapter by chapter, I know where I’m going. And I pants it within the chapters themselves, but they still exist within the framework. Some people swear by pantsing. Two years ago, I would have been one of them. But now I only write long stuff by outline. Outlines don’t necessarily make the Muse come, but, by golly, they keep that flighty wench in line!

Outlines keep me organized. They keep me on theme. And they keep my loose ends tied in. Without them, I write some lovely, rambling prose, but the stories are lame. Just sequences of action all sloppily hung together until they run out of steam. I know exactly where this crazy train is going, but that doesn’t make the journey any less exhilarating.

Of course, everyone writes differently. How about you? Do you plan? Do you pants? Why?

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2 thoughts on “Why I Outline

  1. Outlining is definitely best for me, too – for pretty much the same reasons. What plot? What goal? My MC just has to…do stuff…right? >__>

    In addition, and with respect to NaNoWriMo, I find that outlining makes me write faster and more efficiently. I can sit down for an hour already knowing what I’m going to write, which is nice when time is of the essence! On days when I’m just not feeling it, I can at least write whatever necessary info I’ve got on my outline – just to get words on the page. Even if they are uninspired, at least I know the story will still make (approximate) sense 😀

    • Absolutely- I write way quicker, let alone way better, when I have a plan. The years when I haven’t outlined have been much closer calls. When I outline, I blow that 50k goal out of the water. When I don’t, there’s a little harried screeching at the children to leave me alone on Nov 30 while I scrape together that last few thousand. Okay, maybe a lot.

      I outline like I vacation- I know where I will be sleeping each night. But what I do each day is open, so long as I can get myself to the right hostel that night. If I don’t have some kind of outline, my story rapidly turns into the illegitimate cousin of a congressional fillibuster- I just ramble about kids these days (which I’ve really done in a NaNo novel) and dictate grandma’s famous lemonade recipe (that one as well) and recite song lyrics (yes, that, too) until my bladder finally gives out and I have to leave. It’s better to have a plan.

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