Sunday, May 1, 2016


When I'm not writing, I teach at a local university. This past week was finals week for my students, and one unlucky class had to write a final paper to complete their course.

As you could probably guess, I place a great deal of value on my students learning how to write effectively. I stress that they need to take their time with the paper--to start it well ahead of time and to do multiple drafts. I even offer to review completed drafts for them.

And I still get papers that were clearly written the night before. Which wouldn't be a problem if so many of the papers weren't so very disorganized.

 My students have had great ideas this semester--they know their stuff, by and large. But when it comes to getting the idea across, they've been pretty scatterbrained. They don't value the outline.

Bryan Q. Miller, author of, among many other things, my favorite Batgirl run, extolling the virtues of the outline. Twitter format, so read from the bottom.

This isn't something that's limited to college students. A lot of folks seem to think that they don't need an outline--what happens as it comes out of their brains will be good enough.

When people talk about writers, they sometimes make a distinction between two types: planners and "pantsers." Planners lay out the details of the story ahead of time. They know, to a certain extent, what the end product is going to look like. Pantsers, on the other hand, figure out the story as they go along. The end is as much a surprise to them as it is to anyone else until it's written.

There are pitfalls to both of these approaches. Planners can sometimes box themselves in. Pantsers can sometimes lose the thread of a story. And I'd argue that most writers are some combination of both.

At least most writers that have been at it for a while.

When I first started writing, I never had a plan. I told myself that I'd figure out where the story was going as I went along, that my first drafts were fine. I bristled against every school writing assignment that required that I do more than turn in a final product. I was a good writer--I knew that. Plenty of people--parents, teachers, friends--had told me so.

But, apart from those school assignments, I never finished everything. By the time I was fifteen, I had no less than three unfinished novels languishing in notebooks and on hard drives. I would lose interest in the stories, or I wouldn't be able to figure out what to do next. At the time, I wasn't super worried about this. "Writer's block," I would sigh, bemoaning how difficult it was to be an artist--which, of course, made me feel more like a real, tortured artist. 

(I was absolutely "that kid," and I still cringe about it.) 

More recently, I've been using outlines for all of my writing. At first, the products of these outlines were stiff and forced--though they did lead to fewer instances of problems like, say, killing off the same character twice (oof) and a remarkable decrease in how often I experienced writer's block (the benefits of knowing the goal of the story).

There are really two things I've learned over the last couple of years: first, that outlines are necessary. A novel is big. Even a short one is going to have hundreds of beats for a writer to manage, hundreds of character moments, and hundreds of little facts about the world or the plot or the characters to keep up with. Less experienced writers tend to believe that they'll be able to keep up with all of these things on their own. It's their world; it lives in their head! Of course they'll be able to manage all of it and never forget that the scene they're writing already happened fifty pages ago. But that's really a lot harder than it seems like it'd be. Having a plan written out can keep that from happening, can help you figure out when you need to start planting the seeds for a plot point, or remind you that you need to introduce a Chekhov's Gunman to help you make a particular transition later in the manuscript. Novels are whole worlds--having the skeleton of the world written out somewhere smooths out most of the creation.

The second thing that I've learned is that an outline doesn't have to be set in stone. Novels are, to a certain extent, living things. They change as they grow. Sometimes a character that you thought would be soft spoken turns out to be the wry voice of reason or the character you thought would be the sweetheart becomes the deadpan snarker. When characters change like this, the plan doesn't work anymore. The decisions that a character would make in a given situation will be different. Our new voice of reason, for instance, likely won't be the one to jump headfirst into a dangerous situation. This change will throw your outline out of whack--and that's okay. The end goal is laid out. Beyond that, you can see all of the moving pieces of the story. The outline will change, but you'll be able to cope because you'll see the changes that you'll need to make down the line. 

An outline won't make a story perfect. Even when using one well (which I've only really being doing recently), I still have to go through multiple drafts--though I've found I'm able to keep more of my previous drafts as I revise. And sometimes my writing flat out doesn't live up to the story that's been laid out. But having an outline makes it easier to see where I went wrong, to pick out what I need to fix.

There's no trick that makes writing easy. But having an outline--having an idea of where everything is going--can certainly help you get there and get their in a way that will make sense and engage your readers.

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