Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why I Outline: A (Short) Case Study

Scott D. Parker

Thirty-six days ago, I made a commitment: write some amount of prose everyday. And, to date, I have a 36-day writing streak. Some days, I crested one thousand words, others, a mere paragraph or two. I wanted to create the habit of writing, to create that yearning to know that, even if it's 11pm at night, I still have one additional item on the to-do list. So far, that impetus has succeeded.

I also wanted to test out something: could I write a short story (or novella as the word count is expanding) with only knowing how the story starts and, more or less, how it ends. Many writers write their tales this way and I wanted to give it a go in a smaller, contained piece. While the story does feature my railroad detective, Calvin Carter, I am consciously trying something different: a more traditional style of story. Less of a shoot'em up and more of a brain thing. Who knows how it'll turn out. Maybe I'll go all pulp in the rewrite and strip out all the boring parts.

During the writing, I've struggled with how the story should play out. In the first week, I even changed narrators and that was an interesting experience. It was the only day in which I went "backwards"--that is, did some rewriting--but I have not done any since. Forward, march, as they say. More than once, I wanted to stop the writing and plan out the rest of the story. For this story, I resisted. I wanted to see how it played out.

The time to write has varied. The week between Christmas and New Year's was great. I was on vacation and each morning I'd get up at my usual work time (6:00 am), grab the coffee, and start typing. Once the usual workdays started up again, that went out the window as did the nice large chunks of word counts. I also miss my morning writing times, being forced, by all that the day requires of me, to start writing around 10:00 pm.

And here's where I get to my issue with outlining versus "just seeing where it goes." I start getting tired around that time even though I usually stay up until midnight. My day job blew up this week and has required me to work into the night, including participating in conference calls. The last thing I want to do is write a few lines or pages. I have, and it is in these times I've struggled the most.

You see, when I outline and map out the story, I put all the information on notecards. When it's time to write, pick up the next notecard and just write that scene. Easy as pie. Now, on some nights, while I don't experience writer's block--I know generally what's coming next--the flow isn't there. While I know what to write, I don't always know what to write. Yes, that does make sense. Additionally, with the structure in place, when life throws you for a loop, you can hang your writing self on the structure and use it to get your writing habit back in order.

I'll finish this story in the manner in which I started it: just seeing where the story leads me. Or: since I have this idea for an ending, I'll see if I get there or not. But I'm pretty confident that once I type "the end" on this story, I may go back to the structure that I know.

Do y'all ever try to write something in a way definitely different that your usual method? Have y'all had success?


Dana King said...

Interesting timing for this post, at least as far as I;m concerned. I'm a dedicated outliner, mainly because, for me, telling a story is easier than making one up. If I know what is to happen when I sit down, the writing flows much better.

I had a hell of a time filling in the middle of the WIP, so I'm trying the headlights approach: outlining a chunk of chapters, then writing until I'm caught up, then outlining again. While working on the outlines, I'm starting short stories for a collection I'm working on.

I have no issue writing shorts and flash without a plan. It might be because I can hold the whole story in my head ay once, where novels are too complicated. I don't know. But I wrote a good 500 words last night without a good idea of where I was going, and I'll be fine picking up there later today. Meanwhile, I won't look at the novel again until I have at least half a dozen chapters ready to go. I'm too worried about writing myself into a corner and having to backtrack. If I have to throw away a draft of a short or flash, it's not such a sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

I have no consistent approach to this. Sometimes I outline because I know I'm not going to be able to sustain a story long enough to finish it.

Other times, I wing it because the story has a "What happens next?" vibe to me.

And I've had readers tell me the outlined stories seem organic and the organic ones must have had an outline.

My response is, "I just write. The process sort of dictates itself."

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I've heard some authors say that every story is a different process. I love the concept of outlining...I just can't manage to make it work for me. I am totally jealous of authors who can make it work. On some days the frustration of where the story is going is tough to deal with and then there are those AHA moment that I love. More often than not I am certain they would never have existed had I outlined the story first.

Scott D. Parker said...

(Just returned from camping...)

Dana - Wow. I have never heard the division between the outliners vs. the non-outliners put so succinctly: "I'm a dedicated outliner, mainly because, for me, telling a story is easier than making one up." As my "short story" has moved higher in the word count--and the more intricate it becomes--the more I realize that I might've needed to outline ahead of time. But then, I didn't think it'd get this complicated.

Back to your point of "telling" a story vs. "making it up": that's the perfect thing I need on those rare nights when I have little time to write. If I only have to tell what's on a notecard, I don't have to think too hard to do it. If I'm making it up, it's much harder.

eviljwinter - I am always open to new ways to write. But the more I try different ways, the more I come back to that which suits me. Perhaps I'm merely an outliner at heart. Or, perhaps, because that's the way I did my first book, that set the foundation. Who knows. Fun to play around with, though.

Joelle - I love the AHA moments, too. They are one of the things that makes this entire writing thing fabulous and unique. Often, my AHA moments are when I'm sitting in front of the stack of notecards, seeing the "movie" in my head. Additionally, I am not so devoted to the outline to disallow other AHA moments as they emerge through the writing of the story.