Monday, December 3, 2007

My Strangelove for Maps (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the outline)


It's the eternal debate on writer forums: To outline or not to outline. That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous characters hijacking your story or...not. You get the picture.

I've written a lot of stuff. I've tried writing every way possible, from sitting down to write a whodunit without knowing whodunit or why, to carefully planning each scene down to drawing the location. I've come to the conclusion that I'm a planner. That's who I am in life.

I love a *to do* list. Love it. I like having a schedule and knowing what is going to happen each day, even if all I pencil in is : write or play on computer.

And I love maps.

When I go someplace new, I love detailed directions and a map is even better. I'm good with maps. The reason for this is I get lost. A lot. A whole lot. I've been lost all over the world: Greece, Egypt, Japan, France--pretty much anywhere I've been. I have no internal sense of direction. Put me indoors and turn me around and I'm completely lost. I could get lost going to my bathroom during the night. (Hey, things look different after dark, okay?) As a consequence, I've become great with maps and have developed quite an affection for them. My house is full of Mapscos and globes and atlases.

Which brings me back to outlining. I like to know where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. It reduces my stress and lets me focus on other things like the scenery and the interesting people along the route.

Outlining helps me see the structure of my book broken down into scenes, spot flaws, flesh out my characters and think through things in a logical fashion. If I change direction part way through, it's a lot easier to go back and rewrite bits of my outline.

Not everyone is an outline fan. There are many good writers that simply sit down and write. My friend Jeanne claims her entire book is in her head. She knows exactly what she wants to say and just channels the characters. Me? Not so much. Sure, the book is in my head, but I can't reliably find it. The outlining process helps me locate it and draw my fuzzy ideas into sharp focus.

Others claim that this spoils the trip. Once they've hashed out the details and events, they are no longer interested in the story. To me, an outline is simply a plan for the vacation. I'm still going to take the trip because the experience is worthwhile. Even if I know what I'm going to see, the trip can still surprise me with wondrous discoveries made along the way.

I hear that outlines are confining. For me, they are the opposite. They free me from worrying about structure and plot and let me obsess on the actual words instead.

So I outline. It makes sense to me. As far as I'm concerned, if Moses had an outline, the trip would have taken a week. Ten days tops.

How do you write? Pants it? Rough outline? Topographical map? I'm currently working on the Mother of All Outlines: 25,000 words and counting. If I ever reach the point where my outline is longer than my novel, I'll know it's time to turn back. Until then, I'll just keep plodding along, enjoying this leisurely ride.

10 comments:

Arachne Jericho said...

Sister! :hugs:

I also get lost easily. I haven't really gotten the hang of maps, though; I haven't got a strong sense of place. Despite that, I still use maps all the time, because I still get lost less when I have them.

Outlining has worked for me pretty well, and was how I spun up huge numbers of words in GTD--less worrying about direction, more time to spend on scenery, characters, theme, etc. Even if I veer off the outline and need to update it constantly, it's still better for me than winging it.

My outlines are very rough, though, and become more refined as I progress through the work.

I worked best in my first book for GTD, where I had the rough outline for chapter-by-chapter. Before I wrote a series of scenes, I would flesh out the outline for that part of the book for about 30 minutes beforehand, before plunging into four hours of writing.

My second book, which I walked into with no outline, fared less well. :)

And I've found the outline very helpful during my rewrite, at least so far. I'm updating it and it's helping me see some of the trends and, goodness me, actual subplots that sprouted. Very useful. I'm very happy with outlining in whatever way I'm doing it.

My outline in the physical world sits on index cards. I like working on things in little bits at a time.

Mary B said...

I love index cards. I list all my scenes on cards and hang them on the wall.

Can you say "anal retentive" boys and girl? I knew you could!

Midnight Muse said...

Anal retentive. :D

Perhaps that's it - I love to get lost. When my sister and I first moved to the big city, we decided right away that we weren't going to just sit around on the weekends, or limit ourselves to our little neighborhood, so we developed a habit.

Every weekend we'd pack some food and bottles of water in the car, fill it up with gas, and go get lost. On purpose. We'd drive all over the city, the suburbs, up hills and over bridges - with no idea where we were.

But we found the most wonderful things along the way! Shops we didn't know existed, little out of the way places to pop in for tea. We found out pretty quickly that we were too good at finding our way home again to ever be afraid of getting lost, so we reveled in our trips. We took great joy in not knowing where we were going, how we'd get there, or when we'd be home.

And we always made it home.

That's how I write best. I'm going to start here, and end here. Along the way I'm going to get to know these people, and they're going to show me around. One or two big things are going to take place, but until they do, I don't know how they'll wind up. But somehow, usually in 90 - 120k, I make it home again.

Except that one time it took me a good solid 240k to get there :D

Lori said...

When I outline, I typically just write down the key points. These are the major stops I have to achieve to accomplish the story I'm trying to tell. Interestingly enough, this is how I often travel, too. Yes, I love maps, but I like them less for where I need to go and more for the possible places I might adventure. On a long, more leisurely trip, I might know where I'm planning to spend the night and therefore I know the direction I need to travel to get there, but in between, if I decide to get off the interstate and take the more leisurely, scenic route, then so be it.

For rewrites, though, I find outlines essential. They let me see the novel as a puzzle and how all the pieces fit together.

Mary B said...

I can get lost, even with a map. But the map helps me get found again.

And I really dislike being completely lost in that "What city am I in and does anyone here speak English?" sort of way.

I've been lost far too many times for comfort. :D

Ed Pahule said...

I can't map because I have no idea where I'm going. How can you map if you have no idea where you're going. To me its the difference between my brother-in-law who anal-retentively plots out every minute of our vacations to the point that we can't have any spontaneous fun because, "Oh, it's noon. We have to stop our fun and go eat lunch at the Golden Mast, in the Fo'c's'leoc Room, at the 8 person wheeltable, and we'll each order...

Well, you get the picture. Whereas I'm the type that will go, "Hey! Let's go for a drive!" "Where?" "I don't know. That's the fun part. We'll pick a direction and see what we see!"

And my writing is similar. I can't pre-plan because the story isn't developed in my head. It doesn't develop until I start writing. I have a beginning, some characters, and a vague end, and that's it.

And I'm free, to do what I want, any old time.

Arachne Jericho said...

You're free to do whatever you want even if you've outlined. Certainly I've veered off the outline during writing enough times to know that, heh.

It's like having a map and using it to find branching points, even if you don't follow a direct path. Even those who wander freely are bound by certain rules of causality, like not being able to drive a car through a brick building.

:thinks for a while about the causality and the brick building in terms of fiction:

Well, most who wander. :)

Ed Pahule said...

I realize if you outline you can veer off the beaten path as easily as I, without a map, can.

I have never denied that. Nor have I ever denigrated anyone for using outlines.

To each his own.

My point is that I can't outline. Outlining suggests that you already have an idea of where you're going, what you're going to do when you get there, and you make an itinery.

When I sit down to write, my mind is a complete blank, an empty slate. If you were to ask me seconds before I started typing what I was going to write, I'd have no clue.

But once I touch the keyboard, something magical and wonderful happens and words start flowing. I have no idea where they come from and they amaze me as surely as if I were watching someone else write.

Which is why I don't consider myself a writer, I'm a conduit for someone else's writing. And that's why I can't outline.

Arachne Jericho said...

I haven't denigrated anyone for not using an outline, and I was just pointing out--in general, and not aimed at you, Ed--that outlines don't necessarily mean one is tied down.

It's pretty awesome that the words come out for you like that--and I still think you're a writer. Messages from the mysterious still count, 'cause it's still your head. :)

I've had that feeling before, but I really can't control it or focus it for very long, or very often--not enough to create stories or even chapters. That you can is pretty sweet! Maybe you can call yourself a writer-oracle?

TJWriter said...

I do this very sketchy, very vague outline-y thing. Usually some characters show up, then I start doing some "what-ifs", which is often followed by some ideas about the world I am writing in.

I really can't think too much ahead. Usually it's to the next crucial mile marker in the story. Like right now, characters from QoL must study the prophecy tomes until the king's army figures out where there are, at which point they must escape and end up somewhere special.

Until I get to that special place, I won't really think anymore ahead. Ideas flop around in my head about "what if's" that I may or may not use, but I have trouble if I think more than that.

It's odd that I such an issue with thoroughly outlining, as I love lists, order, and all things anal. You would think outlining and I would be the closest of friends. But, I go with what works for me and it leaves me happy.