Tuesday, August 23, 2011

to outline or not to outline

Here's the thing: organization is not one of my strong suits. I don't think I'm messy by trade, but I certainly have to make a conscious effort to control the clutter. That goes not only for my living or office space, but also my writing.

I'm also not a very good planner. I'm more of a visualizer. Yes, I make a syllabus for the entire year, and I try to stick to it. I really do. But past students will attest to days when I've walked into class and said, "I got a great idea for a workshop on the way to campus today, so let's try it out." And if something's not working in class-- the students aren't grasping a concept, a workshop isn't producing the desired effect -- or, if the class gets off on an exciting tangent and I don't want to quash the energy of the discussion, then I'm ok with changing the plan, even if it's on the fly.

Ditto for writing.

Knowing all this, then, you can speculate how I might feel about outlines. It's not that I'm not a fan -- in certain writing situations, I find them very helpful -- but I'm not very good at them when it comes to my own writing. I would never begin my novel-writing process with an outline, for example (some basic notes, yes). And I did no outlining whatsoever with my first two novels. Nor my third. My co-author, Sarah, did the outline. She's very outline-friendly.

And I have to say, the WILS outline turned out to be rather useful. We (ok, she) outlined after we'd already had a draft of the novel, and for me that's when an outline is most helpful. It was a way for us to trace our steps and see what the path looked like, a map. If the streets didn't meet, were full of potholes, etc., then we had an idea of how to go back and fix it -- add or delete scenes, develop characters, raise the stakes, etc. (and heads up: I have a feeling my next blog post will be about what "raising the stakes" means). And considering that we patchworked this novel together, we very much needed that roadmap. The outline also helped us decide who would tackle which sections needing the most work.

Outlines came into the picture yet again during my screenwriting classes last month -- story and character outlines were essential before writing a word of the screenplay. And yet, I could see their applications to my novel-in-progress, too.

So here I am, writing solo again, and I find my draft stuck in the mud. And I realized that I was going to have to make an outline.

By myself.

And so I did, with the help of a writing software program called Scrivener. Using the very basic template, I broke the entire draft down into sections (mostly by chapter, although some chapters got split into several scenes) and tried to capture the gist of that section. And lo and behold, the map started to come together, and I started to get an idea as to why it was so muddy.

It goes without saying that every writer has a different process. For some, the outline comes before all else. For others, it is the very final step. For others still, it plays no role whatsoever. I don't think I'll ever be an uber-organizer (heck, I'd just like to clear my coffee table!), but I'm coming to appreciate the outline more and more, and finding it a helpful tool in my process. In the meantime, I'd love to know how (or if) it works for you, or doesn't.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

I know without some sort of an outline, not only would I write in circles, but I'd write the same circle many times. I won't say *how* I know this.

Elisa said...

Ah, Beth -- I've missed you!

Elspeth Antonelli said...


Soma Chakrabarti said...

That software is great. It keeps me organized in writing proposals and reports. I just wish it organized my desk, too! :-) And, oh, outlining does help me overall.

Elisa said...

Soma, I'm waiting for the app that cleans my house. :P

Elspeth Antonelli said...

There SHOULD be an app for that! Another bazillion dollar idea which I have no clue how to implement.

Andrea Wenger said...

I enjoy learning about the story and the characters through the act of writing, but it's incredibly inefficient. For my next novel, I've started defining the critical points, like the inciting incident, the point of no return, the midpoint reversal, etc. I prefer to think of it more as a map than an outline. And if I end up following an unexpected route, that's okay. But at least the map should help keep me on course, and prevent me from adding a bunch of subplots that will take me nowhere.

Elisa said...

Andrea, that sounds a lot like some of the techniques I learned in my screenwriting adaptation class this summer -- I've been applying that to my latest draft as well!

Thanks for the comment, and for the twitter love!