Sometime around last week, I was apparently confused with someone sane and was asked to write a guest post for khaalidah.com on the serious and writery topic of outlining. Being an utter loon, I produced the following piece of work, which is reproduced here in it's moronic entirety. You can also read it at Khaalidah's website, if they haven't scrubbed it yet.
The Outline Question
When I first started out, long ago, trying to write (and “trying to write” is still a good descriptor of what I do), I did what every good subscriber to Writer’s Digest was told to do: outline, outline, outline. Every piece of work, but especially potential novels we were told, needed to be planned down to every detail. I remember a column suggesting filling out card files with settings, character descriptions, motivations, psychological quirks, etc. Something as complex as a novel wasn’t just going to pop out on its own, it needed to be planned. You wouldn’t go out hiking in the woods without detailed maps, unless you wanted to turn out like the Blair Witch kids.
I did as told and outlined the heck out of everything. Then, when time came to start writing, I found myself flailing (well…I always flail, it’s my process; what I mean is more than usual). I could not set one sentence after another in sequence without furiously scratching everything out and trying anew, to no avail. Whatever idea or characters that had excited me upon conception seemed sapped of all vitality upon the attempt at getting them down in story form. They existed, only in the outline.
That’s when I discovered the others. Those like Stephen King and Peter Straub, who suggested that there was a difference between inventing and discovering. That outlining and planning ahead was the purview of the creative typist; that a WRITER (yes, all capitals!) just wrote, and worked out where his story wanted to go along the way.
In a recent comment to this site (that prompted the invitation to write this already bloated and self-serving guest post), I may have given the impression of being in this camp of anti-outlining writers. That’s not entirely the truth, and I’ll tell you why…
My first attempt at writing in this manner was incredibly freeing. I could produce page after page after page, where before I had stopped and stalled at every sentence. Sure it was utter crap, but it was something I could work with; something I could potentially improve upon. The vitality and excitement of my ideas (charmingly idiotic as they were, and possibly, still are) had been channeled into the work and not the outline. Moreover, the actual process of writing was at long last fun, where before it had been a soul-sucking, love-killing, sentence-stacking chore (so much so that I actually swore it off for many years, having come to the conclusion that I was just not fit to be a writer---a conclusion I’m sure some of you may be agreeing with about now).
Upon re-reading of what I had wrote, however; I discovered something important. Without direction, without a rudder, my writing tended to run in concentric circles. I tried to fool myself with the old “Oh well, I’ll fix it in the rewrite”, but the randomness was too extensive. It could not be repaired…it would need thorough rebuilding; not rewriting, but starting over from the ground up.
I needed some sort of structure; a happy medium, between outlining and free-form writing. Not a road map, but certainly directions; the sort of thing you draw on a napkin to help someone drive somewhere they’re not familiar with; depicting the major landmarks.
The solution I came up with was simple, absurdly simple (and sure as heck not worth all the wordage I’ve made you put up with so far). It is the method I used to help me keep Dark Roads, my webserial and first completed novel, under control as I wrote it.
It is simply this: I construct a Table of Contents for my story before I write it. Instead of an outline, I come up with titles that serve as placeholders for things I know are going to happen, but not yet sure how; and ideas I have not yet thought up. You don’t have to be clever or original with these titles as they are not meant to see the light of day; they are mere tools to help you keep track of where you’re going, like Paul McCartney’s dummy lyrics. When ex-Beatle Paul McCartney hears that music in his head, he immediately writes down dummy lyrics to help him remember the tune. He doesn’t have to expend any thought on these lyrics because they’re just holding the place for the true lyrics to come later, so they can be total gibberish. Thus Scrambled Eggs becomes the classic Yesterday, once he gets down to work on it.
Let’s say you wish to write a vampire novel (just go with me here on this), one of those old-fashioned, non-shimmery, villainous kind. You sort of know what you’re going for, but don’t have all the details. Your Table of Contents might look like this:
1: The Town of Willie’s Bog (description of small town, basic characters)
2: The Darkness Cometh (foreshadowing of bad stuff ahead)
3: Amy and the Professor (teen heroine befriends grouchy teacher)
4: The Arrival of Count Wisenheimer (enter the vampire bad guy)
5: The Disappearance of Molly Peachpepper (things get real, Molly gets munched on)
6: The Miasma of Evil (the bodies start piling up)
7: Revengers Assemble! (the savants start putting two and two together)
And so on.
This is a very basic example, but notice that at no point are any details nailed down, except what little the writer already knows of his idea and its basic structure. The Table can be as loose or detailed as you wish, without the drudgery of outlining and having to think of everything up front. This way you can still discover your story, and it can change as it changes.
In conclusion (the audience weeps with joy), this method has been very helpful to me and if it’s of any help to anyone else caught in the horns of the “to outline or not to outline” dilemma, well that’s something ain’t it?