I outline my writing. There, I said it. I know, it’s a dirty secret, but sometimes you just gotta come clean.
There are a lot of writers who never outline, who would rather be forced to watch educational TV programs for babies for hours on end. Me, I tried the outline-free way of writing, and it really didn’t work for me.
I like to know where I’m going. I like to know how I’m going to get there. And I like to know the steps I’ll be taking along the way.
This doesn’t mean I feel straitjacketed by my outlines. They are merely road maps, and I’m always open to taking a different road if one comes along that is more interesting than the one I had planned. When that happens, I cheerily throw the outline away and pull out a fresh piece of paper (or open a new file in my writing software).
But an outline forces me to think about the work as a whole, from the prelude to the closing curtain. It makes me look at the problems in my idea and find solutions for them. They may not be the final solution, as my subconscious brain often comes up with something better as I’m working on the details of the prose in the first part of the work, but having any solution at all is better than simply winging it. And the outline gives me an idea of how long the piece is going to wind up being. If the outline takes up the better part of a page, I know it’s going to be a good-sized short story. If it takes up the better part of a notebook, I’d better be thinking “trilogy” or more. 🙂
That said, the outline for the short story I’m currently working on is five medium-sized paragraphs written long-hand on a single sheet of paper, one paragraph for each of the “acts” of the story. There is still a major part of the story I haven’t figured out yet, so that part of the outline is somewhat sparse. My goal tonight is to figure out what to put into that hole in my outline so I can really start writing it this weekend.
There are so many ways to approach the quest to become a published author. I’ve received all manner of conflicting advice, both from other writers I know and from books on writing from various well-known writers. In the end, it all seems to boil down to “do what works best for you.”
I don’t know how useful that advice is to someone who doesn’t yet know what works.
I’d like to think that I’m a very pragmatic person. I want to do what is going to be the most effective thing to move me forward in my quest. At this stage of the game, though, without knowing much about what will work, I’m in an experimental phase.
The writers’ group I used to belong to in San Diego, the Penny Dreadfuls, helped me to understand something about myself and my writing to date. I learned that I tend to think in grand plots, story within story, projects that just won’t fit into the space of a short story. Since then, I’ve made various attempts at starting a novel, making progress, and I keep running into roadblocks. I often just can’t get the plot to hang together well, or my characters just won’t gel in my mind. Sometimes, even when I have a fully formed concept of a character, I just can’t find a name that fits. (I believe that the name is an important aspect of a character, and don’t take naming them lightly.)
I’m not taking well to being continually frustrated by this. So, I’ve decided to switch gears. I’m going to try to make progress on the short story form. I know, I know, I said I don’t think in short story scope, but I think I need practice in getting an entire story told, soup to nuts, before I’m move back to writing novels. It’s not a bad plan; many other authors have followed a similar path to publishing, writing stories for various magazines and anthologies before breaking into novel-length work.
So, I’m spending the rest of June and all of July working on short stories with the goal of having written one in rough draft form by the end of July. My goal is to write something that I will eventually submit to magazines. To do that, I’m working on writing practice (nearly daily) using either my own prompts or ones I find in the most excellent book, “A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves. I’m also reading stories from the kinds of magazines I hope to submit works to, in the hopes of understanding the kinds of stories the editors are likely to buy. (I did say I was pragmatic.)
I’m working on brainstorming into a notebook, writing longhand with some beautiful fountain pens (for some reason, the act of writing longhand, while less efficient, gives me greater freedom to be creative), capturing ideas that might make good short stories. Some time in the next week or so, I’ll pick the one that looks most likely to lead to a complete work and start writing.
If I do finish the work by the end of July, and I’m extremely lucky, I’ll be able to persuade some of the people in my old writers’ group to critique it for me. That would be super-awesome.