Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Outside the Outlines

I tend to be a bit of a disorganized mess by nature.  My idea of filing something important away (read: anything from my bank or credit card companies, usually unopened because I take care of all of my banking online) is throwing it in a big pile in an old-school filing cabinet I have in my place pretty much solely designed for that purpose.

Ever the walking contradiction, I'm also a voracious note-taker, and pretty good at it, if I do say so, myself. I've always prided myself on being able to cut through a lot of the B.S., be it in school or in a meeting, and pull out what's truly important; what the "takeaway" is, if you will.

Over the past year or so, while dabbling in a few short stories, along with this blog and even a few stints as a professional writer sprinkled in, I've been soaking up as much information about writing fiction as possible.  It's not terribly difficult given the ample access to authors that the internet provides; just type in a few google searches and you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the world of writing and publishing.

Though I'm still a ways away from having to tackle some of the more difficult questions ("Legacy publishing" vs. "Self-publishing" being the biggest one), one of the things that popped up time and time again was whether or not outlining a story ahead of time would be helpful to writing a novel.

The non-outliners tend to preach spontaneity.  They're all about that bolt of lightning that can hit you out of nowhere and inspire an hours-long writing binge, somehow channeling a good amount of brilliance onto the page...err...screen.

The outliners are more about having a structure to work off of; without some kind of underlying framework, it's far too easy to perpetually put-off writing as you wait for the "perfect moment" to start.  After all, you can't have  thunderbolt without a storm, so outlining provides a way to get the brain going and get those plot points out on a page so that there's always somewhat of a safety blanket to fall back on.

I've tried both ways, and I have to admit, I prefer the outline method.  Not a blow-by-blow, "First X happens, then Y happens which leads to Z," but rather a more free-form, mind-map style of outline that hits the major plot points I'm looking to hit, while allowing me some freedom in how to address each one.

What I've found is even more important than that outline, though, is an outline about the major themes that I want to hit.  This project is essentially a few shorter stories tied together by some common themes on its most basic level, so addressing those themes before I start and having them in the back of my head while writing has been a huge help toward organizing my thoughts into something cogent as opposed to this "ethereal" idea that I somehow need to translate into words, without much of an idea how to do so.

An example from today; after spending most of the late morning going through and mind-mapping all of the first leg of the novel (what's pretty much going to serve as the first act), one of my themes turns on the idea of nature as an authority.  Though it's not in my mind map, this eventually turned into the protagonist looking on with horror at a brutal murder of a the hands of other chimps (if you didn't already know that I was crazy, that last sentence should be the final nail in the coffin).  It's a powerful scene for a number of reasons, but if I had dogmatically stuck to the outline like a stubborn head coach unwilling to change his ways mule, I would've missed an obvious opportunity to create a scene as emotional as that one is (at least, as I think it is, and hope that it ultimately will be after some editing).

Conversely, without the "theme sheet" I wrote out, I wouldn't have ever thought to include the scene, since it's basically an allegory for a concept that I thought fit well in the first story. 

So, ultimately I'm a fan of a two-outline system; the first a "road-map" that can get you from A-to-B if you get stuck, and the second a list of the themes that you want to run through the story (or stories) from start-to-finish.

I can't take full credit for the idea, as it's basically the same thing Ayn Rand says through the published collection of her lectures and essays on fiction-writing, The Art of Fiction; I'd highly recommend it to any aspiring fiction-writer.

Still, it is creative writing, so I've found in my (very) limited experience that it's best not to let either bog you down and make you feel like writing's a chore.  Have fun, and create an entertaining world that your readers will invest themselves in and want to spend time discovering.  That's what I look for in a book, and (hopefully) others do too.

Days: 3
Word Count: 9,480
Pages: 33

D.J. Gelner covers the Rams beat for, and is an aspiring author.  Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here).  E-mail him at  You can also listen to his podcast (Bottle and Cans) here.

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