Thursday, October 30, 2014


I've been spending the entire week outlining.

Good lord, it's hard work. And it's the most frustrating variety of it, too, where you can only do about twenty minutes of useful work at a time before needing a break. Spend too much time on outlining, then you're over-preparing. Spend too little time and then there's a gap in the skeleton of your story.

I take twenty minutes, then take a break. I do another twenty, then take another break.

It's frustrating, yes, but key.

I'm trying to keep this story as tight as possible and, unfortunately, that means an outline. A very firmly defined one, at at that.

There's always a bit of tight-rope walking involved with doing one. I make it too detailed, I'm sick of the story before I even get started. I sit down feeling I've already eaten that meal. If I begin with an outline that's too poorly defined, then I'm pantsing, and I don't generally do so well with that, at least over the long term.

The difference between this outline and any of the others I've done before is that it's becoming very end-heavy. I have a direction I want the book to go and I need to set it up properly. Beginnings are easy for me. I can write the first third of any book you care to name, almost in one sitting. Endings? Endings aren't that bad, either. It's the middle third that always kills me.

This time around, I'm spending a lot of time on the end before I get there, so I don't spend the middle third lost in the woods.

Outlines are essential to working on broad story ideas. They're pretty much the only way I can keep an entire story in my head at once.

Short stories, for example, are easy to keep track of. You can read one in a single sitting. Spread the pages out all around you, even with annotations. You can see a short story all at once. A book? Especially a genre one with tons of strange details?

Good luck.

An outline is a map. It omits all the details you don't really need to know at the moment. All the strange close-up stuff goes away. It abstracts everything down to just the stuff you need to think about at that moment, summarizing everything down to a level you can hold at arm's length, give a few shakes to and then see whether or not the broad structure works.

People tend to think of them as these strictly formal constructions like they learned in high school: section headers with capital letters, with subheaders labelled with upper case Roman numerals, everything nested neatly in order.

Nope. At least they don't have to.

Outlines are for your benefit. Do them however the hell you want. I've done outlines for stories and articles in crayon on sheets of printer paper, where I expressed all the concepts with stick figures and cartoon cats. I've had two separate but equally-important outlines for the same story, but focusing on different details. And followed them both while writing.

Sometimes if I get stuck at a certain point, I'll bust out a notebook and just doodle where the story's going until everything makes sense again.

It's not like you're publishing that bastard. Get as sloppy and weird as you need to.

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