R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORYTELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
Lesson 3. Coloring Outside the Outlines
Welcome back, class!…and Caroline. If you’ll just take your seats—hilarious, Caroline, now put your chair down and sit on it. Perhaps I could be allowed to begin, if the opening comedy act has concluded? Thank you. Ahem.
We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.
That up there is my second-favorite quote ever from the works of Mark Twain (my favorite, in case you were curious, is, “I always liked dead people, and done all I could for ‘em.” Both are from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is odd, because that’s probably my least favorite of his books) and the perfect way to lead off today’s lesson, which is about whether or not books are MADE or just happen, by which I mean it is about outlines.
Years ago, years before I started publishing or even thought about it…hell, years before I had written anything but fanfiction, I knew I wanted to write for a living. In fact, apart from a short phase in my early teens when I wanted to be a mortician, being a writer was all I ever wanted to be. From the moment I could read, I was writing stories of my own. My mother, bless her, kept many of my earliest works. They are adorably awful. And many are illustrated! Also awfully. That is neither here nor there, I only mention it so that when I tell you I have been attending lectures and panels on how to write fiction since I was twelve years old, you know I’m not kidding. Seriously, my mother took me to sci-fi conventions and let me off the leash, utterly unsupervised, and I went to the damn panels. Even the other nerds thought I was a nerd.
So while I cannot back this up with anything but my own experience, it has been the substance of that experience that aspiring first-time writers are under enormous pressure to outline their books. Being twelve the first time I heard this advice, I had no real idea of what this meant, so I went about it in the same way I’d outline an essay for school. I have lost the original somewhere over the long course of my misspent life, but my first outline would have looked something like this:
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You may all recognize this as possibly the worst and most clichéd adventure story ever in the history of ever. I was twelve. To paraphrase one of my own characters, I cannot emphasize enough the twelveness of that whole situation. Anyway, moving on.
From that very first panel I’ve attended to the very last, I have heard it said that most writers fall into one of two categories—those who plan their books and those who just start writing. To wit, there are Those Who Outline Plots and Those Who Write By The Seat Of Their Pants. To put it even more succinctly, there are Plotters and Pantsers.
I fall somewhere in the middle and I’m sure I’m not alone. To be honest, it’s as difficult for me to imagine someone actually being able to adhere to a pre-written outline without deviation, from first page to last, as it is to imagine someone just sitting down and writing a book without a concordance or notes of any kind. This is not to say that I think either one of those ideas is wrong. If it works for you, it’s the right way to write. Period. But for those of you who are new to this path and perhaps struggling to sort through all the conflicting advice, let me lay out some Pros and Cons to both sides.
Let’s get the ball rolling with Outlines.
PRO: ORGANIZATION. The most obvious benefit to writing an outline is that it, well, outlines things. Certainly one of the biggest hurdles a new writer faces once they actually sit down to write for the very first time is to figure out how to take an idea and put it on paper. After all, when you have a 120k-word novel floating around in the ephemeral mist of your head (or a 270k-word novel, if you’re me), figuring out where to start can be a daunting task (hint: it’s not always the beginning). If outlines do nothing else, they help to get that tangle of anchorless thoughts, scenes and characters in order. It limits the possibility of continuity errors and helps a writer keep track of details that could easily get lost in oceans of text. The more world-building goes into a book, the more likely it is that a writer will contradict him- or herself: Are the flowers of the greeblefrond blue or purple? Are there one hundred fifty-one social castes within the Norblux culture or one hundred fifteen? How the hell long did it take Amber and Meoraq to walk from their meeting place nearish Tothax to the Shrine of Xi’Matezh anyway?
PRO: DIRECTION. Once you’ve established a path for your story to follow, it’s important not to stray too far from it. Or at least, that’s what I’m told by authors who are a hell of a lot more successful than I am and therefore probably know what they’re talking about. And again, when you’re new to this and you’ve got ten thousand great scenes for the same book knocking around in your skull, it’s easy to get carried away. An outline acts as a stern governess standing just behind you with a yardstick in her fist, reminding you that your characters can’t get attacked by basilisks in Chapter Three because, a) they’re on a boat and basilisks can’t swim, and b) they’re attacked by badgers in Chapter Ten, and you wouldn’t want to get too repetitive, and c) they’re in the real world and basilisks are mythical.
PRO: MOTIVATION: Writing an outline at the beginning of your project gives you a physical visual means of tracking your progress, something that can be enormously encouraging, especially if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to sit down and just write for hours at a time every day because, you know, you have a life. When you are only able to write for ten minutes here, half an hour there, partly on the computer, partly in a notebook, sometimes on a napkin or the back of your arm, it’s easy to feel like you didn’t write anything. But when you have an outline, you can say, “I finished the jet ski chase and introduced the talking monkey, so tomorrow, I can get right to work on the volcano sacrifice.” Also, speaking from experience, I can tell you there’s a real sense of accomplishment that comes from updating a Work-In-Progress bar. Knowing at the outset that your book will have twenty chapters gives you an end-point, so that as you write, you can see at a glance when you are 5%, 40%, or 90% done. Whereas those of us who write without outlines can only guess how many words, pages or chapters we’re going to need and we’re usually wrong, so the end-point keeps moving and those percentages mean nothing. I know, ‘the struggle is real,’ right? Well, it is. Writing isn’t always easy or fun, and there can be weeks when you work at it all day and feel like you haven’t done anything. The word count may be going up and up and up, but that sure doesn’t mean the story is moving. There are always going to be days when you need a reason to keep at it and nothing beats the tactile satisfaction of crossing a scene off a list or updating a WIP bar.
PRO: COMPLETION. Probably the best reason to write an outline is that it forces a writer to actually sit down and really think about their book, from beginning to end and every part in between. And while this can spoil a lot of the spontaneity and mystery of the creative process, it cannot be denied that it is helpful to know how a book is going to end or even that there is an ending. Hands down, the most widespread reason given for why a book was not finished is some variation of “It ran out of steam,” which is obfuscated double-talk designed to avert the blame for not knowing what happened next. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you books never run out of steam. Sometimes, there’s just not enough story in your story. It happens. But it’s a whole lot easier to spot when it’s down on paper and the weak spots, dangling threads and gaping void of an ending is right in front of you in black and white.
CON: INFLEXIBLE. The major problem with working with outlines is that they can lock you into a schedule the story doesn’t always want to follow. Now when I say ‘lock,’ obviously I don’t mean the Plot Police are going to bust in through your door and cuff you just because you decided the postpone the marshmallow fluff wrestling scene for a chapter so you can have one of the villain’s minions get eaten by a Utahraptor. Look, every book is going to have a Utahraptor sooner or later and minions are going to get eaten. No one plans these things, they just happen. And certainly having an outline doesn’t mean you must adhere to it at all times, no exceptions, and that for every scene you invent or omit, the Orc-Lord of Outline-land throws a puppy into a furnace. All I’m saying is, an outline provides a writer with structure, but structures are, by their very nature, rigid. Making a conscious decision to ignore your outline in order to pursue an interesting white rabbit can and does have consequences. You have to be able to grow or shrink to accommodate yourself to the size of the door you find on the other side of the rabbit hole, and if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t jump. It ain’t all tea and cakes.
So if working with an outline is so advantageous and clarifying, why would anyone deliberately work without one, you ask? Oh…you didn’t ask? Someone should really ask. Anyone? Well, screw it, it’s on the lesson plan, so I’m just going to pretend someone asked. Why would anyone work without one, you ask? Well, let’s explore some reasons you might prefer to write blind.
PRO: FREEDOM. There’s a reason I write fiction and not reference books on funeral practices throughout history or the medical, magical and culinary uses of plants, both subjects on which I am damn well versed. You could be given the most interesting subject in the world—say, sexual symbolism in religious iconography—but, and maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I am told I have to write a paper on it, it becomes a chore and I become the world’s whiniest overgrown toddler, stomping my feet upstairs and throwing my Cheerios like I’d rather be writing my own damn epitaph instead of that. Meanwhile, in an alternate timeline, while researching religious iconography for my book, I will stumble on the subject of sexual symbolism therein and study it for the rest of the day in happy fascination, thinking, Why hasn’t anyone written a book on this? I need this book! I should write this book! And I really don’t think I’m alone. Fiction writers are inherently creative-types and creative-types have a natural resistance to authority, even their own. Maybe even especially their own. I personally have a competitive streak a mile wide and I love throwing down with the other writers in my groups on word sprints or challenges or NaNoWriMo pledges, but I simply cannot make myself be accountable to myself. An outline is just The Man, man. I gotta be free if I’m gonna be me.
PRO: DISCOVERY. When I was a very small child, I once heard it said (by whom, I no longer remember. If you recognize the quote, please let me know so I can give it proper credit, because I have spent two hours searching the interwebs to no avail), that the less you know, the more you get to learn. It made an impression on me, I think, because of that word “get”. I was small enough then to be in school, yet old enough to wish I wasn’t, and the implication that learning was somehow a reward has stuck in my head like the Chili’s baby-back ribs jingle is now probably stuck in yours. Heh heh. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that quote a bit better. (babyback babyback babyback…I want my babyback babyback babyback CHILEEEEEES! Baby back riiiiiiiibs!) And there really is something exhilarating about taking that plunge, not knowing where it will lead, only that it will take you someplace new and wondrous. I suppose that outline-writers feel the same way to some degree babyback, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is majestic as fuck even if you set off to find it with a road map and a GPS navigator dictating every stop and turn along the way, I just happen to believe babyback babyback babyback that setting off on a road trip and ending up at the Grand Canyon purely by chance is even more amazing, because even if the destination is the same, the planner made a plan and knew where they’d end up, while the roadtripper could have ended up anywhere, as likely to end up at Prairie Dog Town as the Grand Canyon.
PRO: MOMENTUM. If writing with an outline can be described as walking up a set of stairs, with each step clearly marked and landings at obvious and evenly-spaced intervals, then writing without one is a lot like jumping out of an airplane. I’ve done both, and I can attest that, while it is comforting to have a handrail to hold onto and see the numbers painted on the doors counting themselves off as you climb steadily higher, it can also be a bit of a slog. Whereas taking that jump, falling faster and faster until you hit that brilliant moment of terminal velocity, writing like the wind and watching the world grow huge before you, trusting that your chute will open and flutter you safely to earth, but always knowing it might not, it really might, and this wild, wonderful, nerve-wracking moment could all end with a bounce and a crack and a sharp cut to black. But no one pushed you out of that airplane, did they? You jumped. And you’d jump again, because that feeling is really addictive. I have, as I’ve said, written both with and without an outline. I think my personal best, as far as pages written in a single day, with an outline was about thirteen pages. And as I recall, they were pretty polished, as a first draft goes. Most of the time, my outlined-work averages five or six pages in a working day, and they’re usually pretty good pages. They may or may not make the final cut, but I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any outlined-scenes I cut because I was unhappy with the work that went into them. Without an outline, on the other hand, my personal best was an honest-to-God eighty-two pages. You read that right. Eighty-two rollicking, sloppy, out-of-control pages. I jumped from that plane and I fell hard. I think my second-best was about forty pages, I often do thirty, I usually do twenty, and I think I can honestly say I’ve never done less than thirteen, ever. Of course, with one noted exception (Cottonwood), all my outline-less work is rough as sharkskin and needs a lot of reworking to make it readable. Which brings me to the biggest Con of taking the Pantser-route.
CON: OH, JUST SO MUCH RE-WRITING, GUYS. LIKE, JUST SO MUCH. FOR SERIALS. So you’re writing your first novel and it’s going great. You’re two hundred pages in and still going strong. It’s just a roller coaster of a book, nothing but cover-to-cover marshmallow fluff wrestling, jet ski chases, and sizzling-hot Utahraptors.
And there you are, on lucky Chapter Thirteen, as your heroine and hero are standing on a rocky outcropping in Nepal, as one does, when suddenly! An avalanche! How exciting! The hero is swept away by icy death and the heroine plummets through a crevasse into…a lost temple! Okay, but you really don’t want the hero to be killed, because introducing a new love interest two hundred pages in is obnoxious. So before exploring the temple, you’ve really got to go find him. Maybe he’s got GPS in his phone. That’s a thing now, right? Maybe not a given, though…you should go back and allude to it in some way so the reader knows it’s there. Okay, so you flip all the way back to Chapter Three and have the heroine find him in the crowded marketplace by the GPS in his phone instead of just seeing him over by the ferret vendor. That works. The heroine digs out the hero, exchanges a few quips and some sexual tension, and it’s back to the temple! Exploration! Discovery! Wait, it’s going to be dark in there. Do they have flashlights? Well, it’s okay, they have phones. They won’t work forever, but they’ll work long enough to find, I don’t know, a torch or something. Wait, how would they light the torch? It’s not like either of them planned to go temple-spelunking when they fell into this madcap adventure. Maybe one of them smokes. Okay, make a note and sprinkle a few cigarettes or, you know, “whatever one smokes” throughout the earlier chapters. Okay, torch is located and lit! The hero and heroine make their way through the temple to the relic chamber and there, in pool of unlikely sunlight, is the very thing they’ve come all this way to find! It couldn’t be, but yes, it’s…it’s Narselkin’s Cradle! Both rush over and fall to their knees. The hero excitedly reaches to open the relic, but the heroine quickly stops him. Reading the hieroglyphs—wait, does the reader know she can read hieroglyphs? Go back to Chapter Two in the research scene and throw in some hieroglyphs…
You get the point. While you probably already understood that writing by the seat of your pants means not having any idea what’s going to happen, you may not have realized that it also means you might not have any idea what’s already happened. Writing without an outline almost always means continuity hiccups, contradictions, dangling threads, dead ends and delicious Chili’s babyback ribs. By and large, I write books twice as long in half the time without an outline as I write with one, BUT! It takes easily three times as long to edit and polish (exception: Cottonwood).
At the beginning of this ridiculously long post, I made the statement that, despite what panelists so often tell us, there is a wide, grey line between the extremes of Plots and Pants. These days, I create a concordance for each book, in which I keep my timeline, all my character sketches and personality profiles, inspiring pictures, links to reference material, deleted and alternate scenes, and any little relevant doodles and notes. Some of you may be wondering how I can claim to ever write without an outline if I admit I do this. Well, most of this, I put together after the first draft, or at least, after I’ve written everything I “see” clearly. Essentially, I write without an outline for as long as it comes easily, then start making notes and constructing my concordance. Here, for the first time, I break the body of the book down into chapters, so it’s easier to identify which ones are complete and which ones are still missing scenes. I then flip back to the beginning and take each chapter one by one, filling in the blank spaces until the story is told. So, in essence, I jump down the rabbit hole, then take the stairs back up. Never quite as high, mind you, but still with a hell of a view of the Grand Canyon.
Welp, that’s it for another week, class! See you all next time!
…kind of hungry. Think I’ll stop at Chili’s on the way home. I don’t know why, but I’m really feeling the ribs tonight…