Guidelining

Original art by our very own Julia Wang!

Here’s the thing, I am someone who used to dismiss the notion of outlining a story. What’s the purpose if I’m just going to deviate from it? It’s like making the bed in the morning just to mess it up again at night. But lately, I’ve been telling myself to think outside the box about my writing process and allow myself to experiment. (I’ve been making the bed, too. Most days.) So I’m trying outlining not only because I have been on a writing dry-spell, but also because the specific process of outlining seems to work so well for so many great writers, and I’d feel silly not to give it another serious try. While I have you here, I’m going to talk about some of the pros and cons I’ve experienced this time around.

One big advantage of outlining, and one that I’ve heard most often from pro-outliners, is that it gives you a roadmap of things to come, something from which to deviate. I find that having a roadmap takes the burden of plot-advancement off my shoulders when I’m trying to concentrate on creating a good scene. This helps a lot. In a way that I didn’t foresee, having an outline actually allows me to concentrate more on the details. It’s as if I’ve separated the two parts of my brain: the one that thinks in the big picture and the one that thinks in detail. Outlining uses the big-picture part, and then when I’m down in the trenches of writing, I can turn that part off and focus on the lines.

But, outlining is dangerous for me. I could plot so much and become so proud of certain ideas, that the story becomes stilted and stiff. Plus, when I actually start to write snippets of dialogue, characterization, even weather, I will want to steer the plot down a completely different path. This happens rather often, and it feels as if the entire outline is going to waste, yet again.

(Of course, I have to remind myself, an unused outline is not a waste. The outline can be, in the very least, one possible outcome in the multiverse of how thing will actually shake down in my story. And exploring that possibility is in itself valuable.)

Another danger of outlining is that it promotes over-outlining, and to me that just kills a story. I love discovering the story as I go along. I love feeling around in the fog. Dear Mr. E. L. Doctorow says, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I read this quote as a teenager, and thought, “Yeah, you know what, I concur,” and went on to the practice of freewriting and then hacking. I still love this quote, though now I understand it in a slightly different way. Because really, even if you’re driving in the fog, you still have an idea of where you’re going. You’re still trying to stay on the highway or at least on some sort of road. Maybe, then, I should view the process of outlining as less formal than I have been. Less rigid. Maybe I should think of it more as… “guidelining.”

The fabulous Sir Terry Pratchett says in an interview with Writers Write, “I certainly don’t sit down and plan a book out before I write it. There’s a phrase I use called ‘The Valley Full of Clouds.’… But I will write down now what I think the conclusion of the book is going to be. It’s all a technique, not to get over writer’s block, but to get 15,000 or 20,000 words of text under my belt.” Yeah, that would be nice. 15,000 to 20,000 more words of my novel would be terrific progress. Maybe then I could start hacking.

I haven’t made up my mind yet about all this. It’ll probably be an ongoing adjustment to my creative process. But I find adjustments rather refreshing, no?

My dear compadres, if you outline, how do you make it work for you? Or, why have you found it to be not very useful? Let me know! Give me some advice! I’m eager to hear what you think!

On the same topic, what new writing technique have you tried recently? Or, more broadly, is there some technique you’ve been itching to try?

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  1. Karen says:

    Exactly. I have felt the same “guiding” instead of strict ideas while outlining. But also wanting to outline to get to the end of a ms. So much agree with what you said about the outline freeing your shoulders to write. Or in my case, focus. Great post! Thanks.

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