So I have a confession that is neither terrible nor dramatic, but sort of seems to put me in the minority compared to a lot of writers I know — and that is that I am utter failure at using outlines.
(That is not to say that I don’t know anyone else who is the same, but definitely things are skewed towards people who set up a skeleton for themselves when they sit down to write something.)
When I was younger and first really starting to seriously apply myself to writing, I read a lot of books of advice on How Things Were Done, and pretty consistently across the board, I was advised to write myself an outline. On paper it made perfect sense: give yourself a framework, then apply your efforts to it piece by piece, and then you would have a whole and completed story after all the parts were filled out. Tah-dah! So of course, because I was very serious and very determined to be a Real Writer!, I wrote myself a lot of outlines for a lot of things. I would write things and I’d finish them and gosh maybe I’d be one of the youngest full-length novelists ever! That’d be pretty fantastic, right?
Except I ran into the roadblock where, when I finally sat down to write the story itself … I ended up blocked and confused. I’d written myself pretty some thoroughly rigid guidelines; it was practically a cliffnotes version. Things should have been easy, right? But when I tried, I just felt stymied; it felt like I had already written my story, but instead of having a full and finished story, all I had were a bunch of notes and nothing to show for it. I had plenty of cool-sounding chapter titles and book titles, but nothing of any real substance.
Part of this was a discipline thing, I’m sure; it was really hard to make myself sit down and see something all the way through, no matter how much I wanted to — I was pretty much the epitome of the “I’ll write a novel someday” attitude that NaNoWriMo talks about. Someday I’d do things write. Someday I’d write an outline and apply myself and magic would happen. Someday I’d be a Real Writer! who wrote real stories.
I have definitely gotten better about the applying myself, at least, but I’m still faltering a lot on actually using proper outlines. I still feel like I’ve already told my story if I try to write things out beyond the absolute barest bones. In the novel I’m working on right now (uh oh!), I know how the story will ultimately end, and I know general events I want to happen — I know that the story will be broken into roughly three parts, and I know what I want the main thrust of each part to be. I even have a couple of significant events that I want to have happen in each part. I don’t have it exhaustively written out, though; my notes are pretty much hand-scribbled in a battered moleskine (and doesn’t that sound ridiculously pretentious?) along the lines of shorthand phrases and lines. A couple of weeks ago I saw someone suggest writing a short 50-word max outline at the end of your daily writing to remind yourself of what you want to work on for the next day’s session, and that has been pretty much the extent of what I’ve done. And even then, I’ve had the same one-line note to myself for the past week and haven’t gotten anywhere near to where I need to be to enact that scene.
When I was younger, I worried that this made me sloppy and less legitimate as a writer. Now, I still worry that it’s sloppy (and really, it is, a little), but it’s been working out for me extremely well. To date this year I have written 285,573 words of fiction, and of that, I would hazard a good 90% of it relates to stories that are now finished and edited — a couple of which were decently long (25K to 37K words) without any particularly detailed outline. I have jotted myself notes for things that I’d like to work on, either in conjunction to the novel I’m working on now, or else when that’s in editing and I’m waiting to hear back. I’d still like to be cool and use outlines, but my discipline possibly doesn’t extend that far.
But who knows? Give me another couple of years, and we’ll see where I am then. ;)