First Draft: To outline or not to outline

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I’ve been pretty blog quiet lately. Now if you know me you know quiet is not a natural state for me. Even when I’m not saying anything…I’m saying something…you know what I mean?

My hiatus is involuntary yet calculated. I would have liked to continue exploring this platform and have thought of it often but it became a practical thing to cull blogging from my to do list. Especially since, I’ve had the idea that I can finish what I’ve started with the first draft of a book I’ve wanted to write for several months now.

One of the first things I discovered in the course of writing a full novel was life would get in the way as much as possible. There will often be no rhyme or reason for the extenuating circumstances that interrupt you but I tend to think it’s because I care that I’m often overwhelmed by my life. When I don’t care, the phenomenal almost always happens – nothing at all.

The logistical challenges of finishing a first draft won’t diminish even if I lose all ability to feel because I actually am busy. With a demanding job and a family in crisis, busy is a near constant state for me so I have to make adjustments accordingly. The question came up in a writer group I’m in whether there was a specific time or season that I felt more “productive” as a writer. After giving the question some thought, it was clear that I didn’t have a calling to write during a particular time of day or year for that matter. My inclination has been not to force myself to find that magical time either. I am the ultimate pantser in every way.

My calling to write creatively has more fruitful gravitas when I open myself to it fully. That probably sounds like new age crap but some very sensible and earthbound writers out there will know exactly what I mean. The truth is even if you’re writing with others at some point you will be required to pull the story out of yourself. It may have been a tale dormant in your consciousness or come like a brick sailing through the sky to hit you on the head. Either way, you’re accountable if you want to call yourself the author. Letting my imagination take the lead gives me everything I need, to create characters and storylines that interest me or vibrate with intensity but, it doesn’t always help perfect the finished product for the reader.

Keen organizational skills are a necessity in my daytime career but with writing, I’d been thinking (hoping?) that it would be a pure, more organic endeavor. I thought that right up until I hunkered down and started the first draft of this book. The novel I’m presently writing is a suspenseful one. Had it not been the lessons that I’ve learned about why outlining is a good idea may have never come to me. The devil is in the details and writing a book is clearly an operation comprised of particulars.

What surprised me most about doing an outline for my book was how long it took to do it. As I suggested I am a fecund planner by trade. However, for some reason it never occurred to me that planning something that came into my head periodically in the guise of strangely specific characters I’d never met talking to me and engaging scenes or locales I’d never been to but I could place myself in would take an enormous amount of time to document.

What was I thinking?

Of course, it takes time to do that. It’s probably why a lot of writers DON’T do it. At least it seemed that most of them didn’t when I asked writers in my group about it.

While long and tortured, when it was done the progression of putting an outline together for my book, felt nearly as satisfying as I expect writing it past the finish line will be. It feels wonderful to know every day what scene or what character should be on my mind and why. It also provided me with the clarity I needed to embellish my story freely in places that I might have ignored or forgotten about otherwise. Like other writers, I thought that the inventiveness of the story would fall apart under the scrutiny of an outline but that hasn’t happen. The story holds, thank God. Moreover, so does the productivity of my imagination. I’m not certain but I suspect if a fictional idea works in the aggregate, it just works, and so it’s up to the writer to do their due diligence without any whining about how they’ve lost that loving feeling with their story.

For those on the fence about outlining or just in need of a pep talk about the process I recommend reading the very helpful book: Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland (I had trouble with the how to title too but you’ll get over it once you start reading).

We’ll see, as my Mama used to say, the proof is in the pudding (my last worn out cliché in this blog posting at least). If, when I finish the book, it makes the readers feel what I hope they do then I’ll know that this process of outlining was a successful one. Ironically, in the interim, I just have to go with what feels right.


4 thoughts on “First Draft: To outline or not to outline

  1. i have never been an outline girl…i write in fits…400 pages in a year, nothing for 6 six months…like that…my writing mentor keeps yelling at me, stop editing, just write the book then go back and rewrite many many many times..just write to the end
    she always says shut up and write to the end… so I’m thinking screw the outlines
    just write to the end…what helps me is to do a 12-step approach kinda- one chapter at a time…200-400 pages wow that’s daunting- a 2000 to 3000 word chapter..yeah baby that i can sink my teeth into– i never thought i could write a book until i stopped trying to write a book and started just trying to write a chapter….you can do it…and also re-reading the artist’s way…i always get stuck on “the crazy makers” the people who seem to have a purpose in our life of making us so crazy we can not create… close the door and write…let your soul fly!

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    1. I hear you Rossi and I think the “12-step approach” works for you because so often you write memoirs. But even if what you’re writing isn’t semi-autobiographical I think to “let your soul fly” as you put it is definitely the way I’d prefer to go. It’s just that the particular story I’m working on required a more layered approach. The plot line was a little too complicated not to clearly see where I was going ahead of time. Will that approach work for other stories? I’m not sure. We’ll see.

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