Quelling my desire to outline

A nice gem popped up over on the Kill Zone lately that I have to admit spoke to me. They ran an excerpt from Steven James on outlines, where James said:

…I realized that in my heart of hearts I’m a storyteller, not an outline-maker.

If that’s you, here are a couple of secrets I’ve picked up over the course of writing ten novels without any outlines.

I’ve found that when I tell people to stop outlining their stories, I get strange looks as if writing organically is against some sort of “rule” of writing.

via The Kill Zone: Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know a few things about my non-work, non-family life: I like to write fiction, and I struggle with outlining. The two are so often paired together that it’s often easy to forget that you can do one without the other. My own personal struggle has always been that trying to write an outline results in days, then weeks, of frustration and anger because I can’t find a structure, let alone the words, to encapsulate the story I see in my head. I’ll stab the screen a few hundred times, usually in a half-dozen or more different and ill-fitting apps, then pull out some paper and try outlining that way. I’ll go through a dozen or so sheets of paper, some with pictures, others with primary school roman numerals, all of it ending in the same place: the waste bin.

Not true, actually. I save them all for a long, long time to remind myself what I thought of, as an object lesson in how I failed to outline. Sometimes, I push past this desire to outline (but it’s hard – I mean, who doesn’t want an outline, a guidepost to tell us where the story is going so we don’t have to think so hard?) and just start writing. In those cases I usually make it pretty far, sometimes all the way to the end. Or not. Because the rest of the time, the story dies in an inferno of cliché and poor word choices that would choke a whale. But I always come back when I start the next story, convinced that this time I can outline, this time I can write down those guideposts and work out where my story is going ahead of time, so that I can better craft a tale.

Reality is a bit less successful. The day after I finished NanoWriMo, I was ready to stay on the saddle and keep writing. I had a notion of an idea for a story (I’ve worked with less). The story itself is straightforward enough, but its the exploration of the characters, good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things, that is the heart of the story I want to tell, not the creature feature that compels them. But after writing the first few thousand words, I paused, because I was going to write an outline! Something that defined my story! Give me structure! Form! Function!

Give me a clue! Because it’s been nearly a week since I put any words down. Instead, every day I sit here, trying to figure out how to tell the story, and how to translate that into an outline. Based on word count totals on my most mediocre of days, that’s at least 5-10 thousand words I haven’t written in the last week because I’ve been too obsessed with making an outline.

I think I’m doing this wrong. At 10 thousand words, I’d be about 1/7th – 1/8th of the way through the first draft. But the parts of my brain I used to create are all shut down, tossing around A then B then C narratives that lack any humanity. Bah.

I give up on outlines (for now). I think it’s time for me to stop trying to plan how the story is going to go and just write the story and find out. Fixing mistakes and bad narrative directions is what the second draft is for. At the same time, I recognize that I need to learn to be willing to make those mistakes. Write the extra scenes. Be willing to trash something if it goes in the wrong direction or veers off course. I abuse some scripts to track how many words I write each day in fiction and blogging, but I’ve let myself forget that I shouldn’t be trying to count them cumulatively. That is, If I wrote 2k yesterday, and 1k today, that 3k of writing in 2 days doesn’t mean my story should be 3k along – it’s ok if that 1k replaces some or all of what I wrote yesterday.

Learning to let go of outlines means learning to let go of the mistakes, too. Who knew maturing as a writer could be so painful?

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