Thursday, October 18, 2012

To Outline or Not to Outline? A New Writer's Dilemma

I recently came across a blog post at Pen In Hand entitled "Outlines: Mapquest for novelists, or soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time?" by Donna Gillespie and it was a great take on her process. To read it and see what motivated me to address the same topic, you can find her post here.

This is a topic that many writers find difficult to grasp because there are so many perspectives. This is not because using outlines is so incredibly difficult that creating one is a process that has to be mastered, at least not in my opinion. It's controversial and difficult for new writers because they simply don't know what will work best for them. It's different from one writer to the next. So here's my take and my process.

I understand and agree with Donna to an extent. However, I do like outlines. My outlines probably don't meet the full definition of what her instructor, Leonard Bishop, taught her, but they help to keep me focused and allow me to reread what I've written in the outlined summary of each chapter rather than having to go back and reread everything I wrote in the book.

I begin with brainstorming about the characters, setting, and various notes I want to integrate throughout the novel. Once I collect them into a sequence of events that generally outlines where I'm going with the novel and how I'd like things to end up etc..., I begin chapter one. I always go back to the outline, adding more detailed events and planning about a quarter of the book or more ahead of where I am in the writing. Then I go back to writing, fleshing out the chapter summaries, and filling in the blanks. Once I catch up to the end of that quarter of the book, I go back to the outline, bold what I've written to easily show where I've progressed, and write out a more detailed account of my general comments for the next quarter of the book. Then, as it says on shampoo bottles, rinse and repeat, key word being "repeat." By the time I've officially written the first half of the book, the entire book is normally outlined in detail. As Donna mentioned, writing is an organic process and sometime I find myself adding things to the outline after the fact, even entire chapters. The outline isn't a permanent, fixed entity to me. It's just a way to focus and align my thoughts, jot down notes, and ensure I'm still working on the same fundamental concepts, themes, and plot line, (the tree trunk) and haven't "branched" off into another imaginary realm that is somehow intertwined.

In the end, the outline proves to be more of a visual guide for my thoughts and plans, helping the book to become reality. It inevitably changes at times when new ideas come to me or better ideas override the old. Like the tree Donna mentioned and a writer's imagination, to me an outline must flex and grow from you, staying a few chapters ahead and offering a light at the end of the tunnel to work toward.

Some writing professors from my past have been fans of outlines and some have not. One instructor of mine promoted being in tune with your surroundings and using it to support or stimulate your mind and your writing. He often took the class out next to a pond, under a copse of trees, or to various places where the events around us might bring about new ideas. He wasn't confined by the structures of an outline, but that was his style. I agree with finding a place, things, surroundings, and visuals that can give you ideas. I got an entire concept for one of my short stories from just seeing a large black and white butterfly while I was out hiking. It's wings were torn to shreds, but somehow it still managed to fly perfectly. Out of that one sight came "House Al'Amin" a supernatural zombie short story published by TPP Publishing in the Creature Feature anthology. In the end, the butterfly became a moth in the story, but the entirety of it all stemmed from that one sight.

All of these things can affect your writing, but you are the one that finds what works best for you. More than likely it will be a combination of things. In my opinion, whether you use an outline or not is up to you. I use a hybrid version that works for me. I've never seen anyone use the same method I do, but I certainly can't be the first. If you're a new writer, try different methods. Don't be afraid to give it a shot. Find what works for you. If something you try is difficult at first, try your best to understand why it's done a certain way and do it. If it doesn't work for you, change it. You can alter any idea to make it work for you so long as you understand why you're doing it. Is it faster, more efficient, does it allow you to easily find things or come back to character details? Whatever the reason, if you think it will help you to get the words on the page, modify the idea and make it your own. Find your style, but above all, put the pen to paper or open the laptop and write. The end goal is still the same, to put together your ideas and create the book, your legacy. There are many avenues to travel which will get you there. Find the one that works for you.

Weston Kincade ~ Author of Invisible Dawn, A Life of Death, and Strange Circumstances