What My Outlines Look Like

Chuck Wendig inspired me to write this with this post. Go there, then come back. Or don’t. Maybe just go there, he’s better at all of this than I am.  I’m going to continue as though you were still here, pop back when you’re ready… In that post he talks about all the ways and reasons to outline and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. It’s brilliant in the way that most of Chuck’s Terrible Minds posts are brilliant, which is ‘how in the bloody hell did you know exactly how I operate, you must be the devil!’ I assure you, Chuck Wendig is the devil.

Within the above linked post, he links to another of his posts, which is to be found here, where he details all the plotting methods he can dream up, and maybe a few that came to him in the meta-physical delirium that accompanies too much drinking and too little sleep at cons. If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend perusing these two posts and picking out a few contenders you may not have tried before to see if any fit. As writers, one of the most important things we can do is expand our toolboxes; we should constantly be improving. The best way to improve is to try new things and see which ones work for you. If you’re not a writer, do it anyway. Writing is fun. Do it.

To address the title of the post, my outlines look nothing like outlines. In fact, for the most part they are invisible because they are inside my head. Sometimes I jot a something down and toss it in my ‘don’t forget this’ folder, or throw note into my Evernote account to remind me of a particular thing I want to do, but generally, the major events are in my head. The trick is getting from one event to another.

For my first series, I started out with 3 events– 3 things that had to happen. I also had a world in mind, which got fleshed out as the story and characters developed. Everything in between got filled in by placing those characters in the place I had built, and letting them figure their way to where they needed to be. If things went too far astray, a little massaging and a couple of insurmountable roadblocks led them back where they needed to be. If they got really crazy… let’s just say thousands of words went unused.

All that in between stuff– how a character will react to a thing and where that reaction will take him/her is why I can’t outline. The character’s decisions being natural and spontaneous important to me, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they’re going to be, so I can’t even put them in an outline.  I’ve heard this style of writing coined as ‘discovery writing’ and I think it’s spot-on. I have an idea of where things need to go, so I point the ship that direction, then I let the interstellar winds, gravity waves, and dark energy carry me off and discover all there is to find between here and there.

And that’s fun.

It’s also scary as hell.

It’s scary because I’m always convinced I’m going to lose the story and it’ll take me 500,000 words to get it back again and by the time I finally do get back to it I’ll have totally forgotten where I was going and then the whole thing will fall apart and I’ll be a complete failure as a writer and no one will ever want to read my work and I’ll die hopeless and alone without ever getting published and all my friends and family will laugh at me and think I’m worthless and I’ll die of shame and embarrassment with no one to hear my dying words where I lament that I didn’t write an outline (I realize I died twice in that sentence, but it ran on long enough to warrant a second death scene). But seriously, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat and tried to make a detailed outline of a story simply for confidence or to relieve that overwhelming sense of self-doubt and fear that I’ll lose my way and never get back to the plot. Every time I start to write there’s a little part of me going ‘Okay, Martin, don’t fuck this up. You’ve been doing all right so far, but I know you, and you’re bound to drop the ball sometime.’ And chalk points up to my grade school English teachers, because I hear voices of little schizophrenic demons on my shoulders chastising me about how much easier it would be if I just finished that damn outline, just like they always told me I should.

Because, after all, who can write a plot without an outline?

Lots of fucking people, that’s who.

And I’m one of them.

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