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?

The Injustice of it all

I made a rare Black Friday purchase this week – sort of. We don’t actually go out for Black Friday, the American-post-Thanksgiving day of shopping and mayhem. It can be summed up simply – we don’t like people that much. Individually, sure, you all are awesome. I cherish my friends, every one of you, because you passed this gauntlet and were separated from the crowd. But put them together in a mass and the chaos of it all can be a bit overwhelming. This particular Black Friday sale was online and delivered digitally, which worked just fine.

Last year, Injustice came out for the X-box. Based on DC heroes and villains, it had eye-appeal. Where it lacked was that ultimately it was a fighter game (i.e., player vs computer, player vs player fights with no real story line or action). At $50 new, and with me the only gamer in the house, it wasn’t worth the expense.

Fast forward a year. The older two girls are keenly into all things superhero, and the youngest isn’t opposed. On top of that, in the last six months all three of the girls have developed an interest in playing on the X-box. We now have 3 controllers and a dwindling supply of AA batteries to match. And Injustice, a game about superheros? On sale for $4.99, and me with a $5 credit.

In the last two days, the girls haven’t left the living room much. They’ve been too busy battling it out as Raven vs Aquaman, and Catwoman vs Cyborg, and every other combination you can think of.

And as an old comic book reading gaming geek, that’s pretty cool to me. You can argue that they should get out more, they should be doing something more constructive with their days off. I’d counter that by pointing out that they aren’t fighting each other. They are spending hours, whole stretches of time, playing together. Well worth the $5 investment.

Using Jamie Rubin’s google word count tracker with Scrivener – without effort

Jamie Rubin gave us a Halloween present this year by adapting his set of Google scripts that track changes, word count, and progress to be able to handle txt files in your google drive.

Of course, my first thought was how to apply this to Scrivener. At first, I thought I could use Scrivener’s sync folder to accomplish this. That would only work well with some tweaking that would affect my other workflows, and force me to work on only one project at a time. You see, Scrivener expects that when you setup a sync folder, it’s dedicated to the project you’re working with. On top of that, it wants to put all of the text files in a Draft folder. So if you have two or three projects going, you have two or three sync folders, each with it’s own Draft folder. With NaNoWriMo on the horizon, time was of the essence, so I settled for doing text compiles of my novel as I worked on it.

That had two big problems.

  1. It meant I had to remember to compile every day. If you know anything about me, its that remembering to hit a button every day for a month (or longer) is going to have occasional failures.
  2. Although Google will let you store files of various sizes on your drive, Jamie’s scripts rely on Google’s api for  accessing them to get stats and do comparisons. Unfortunately, that means that once your file is more than 20k or so, its too big for the scripts to work with. Think that’s big? My small novel of 70k words had to split into three files in order for the scripts not to die on me.

For the remainder of NaNoWriMo, that’s what I did. I finished writing that novel yesterday, so today I decided to correct this process. I’m on a Mac, and these instructions are very Mac specific (or Linux, but certainly not Windows, at least not without some cygwin – sorry!) What I’ve finally settled on works without me needing to remember to hit a button, without any special changes to Jamie’s scripts. What I did have to do, though, is learn to treat the folder that Jamie’s scripts are watching less like a place I can write, and more like a destination for my files.

Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. In my project, setup sync to folder. I like to put this on dropbox (so I can use an editor on other machines to work with the files), but that’s optional.
  2. Make sure you are putting text files in your sync folder, and only grabbing what you want to grab – what you’ve written, not research, etc.
  3. I wrote a small script that roots through my export folder, grabs text files that are new, copies them to my Google drive – and renames them as it does so, prepending the project name. Why? Because I typically have a structure of Chapter/Scene, where Chapter is the POV, and the file that makes up a scene is literally named Scene. When Scrivener exports this, what you get are a lot of Scene’s with numbers attached to them. By prepending the project name, what ends up in my Google folder is still unique. Finally, I have a cron job that runs a minute before midnight to grab all of my files. The script is simple:


# Ignore space in file names
export IFS='


# Get a list of directories you've exported
for x in `ls $SE`; do
# Just to be safe, make sure we have a Draft directory - otherwise its just flotsam
if [ -d "${SE}/${x}/Draft" ]; then
# paranoia - making sure spaces in the path are ok
path=`echo ${SE}/${x}|sed -e "s| |\\ |g"`
# Find txt files that are less than a day old in our export dir
for file in `find ${path} -name "*.txt" -type f -mtime -1d`; do
# Just grab those files that actually have more than one 2 words - this eliminates things like the directory files
if [ `wc -w ${file}|awk '{print $1}'` -gt 2 ]; then
# Build our new file name
newf=`echo $file | sed -e "s|${SE}/${x}/Draft/||g"|sed -e "s| |_|g"`
# Rsync the file to your google path [FIX THIS] - rsync preserves timestamps
rsync -av $file $HOME/Google/Writing/${x}-${newf}

The cronjob is really simple:

59 23 * * * $HOME/where/I/put/my/scripts/scrivener2google >/dev/null 2>&1

I realize there’s a few things here are technical. If you have questions, let me know!