Oh, the Joys of Outlining (again)

I was never much of an outliner.

Being the candy addled 10-year old that I was when I started writing, I wrote what felt right. I followed my heart and my imagination and let that take me wherever it wanted. This energy led to a lot of ideas but nothing that ever got finished.

I look back fondly on this era in my life. Oh, all the ideas I had. The confidence I had in committing every one of them to paper. But I also realize that a lot of them were (oh, how should I put this) really, really awful but still cute in their own way. And in those days, I dismissed outlining. I absolutely hated the idea of it because I viewed it as a constraint on stories. Getting bogged down in the details wasn’t really my thing then and I held onto this belief until about three years ago.

Now I realize how essential outlining is to creating a roadmap to a story and continuing its momentum when you feel lost.

And I’m feeling really lost at the moment. I’ve been revising my Festival of Shadows novel for the last year now and I’m still navigating its fraught waters. I have an outline but after six chapters of pushing through it, it doesn’t feel right. So, these last few days, I’ve been returning to the outline and doing some long overdue research on outlining strategies.

And you know what I found: Premise statements! In fiction, this is a succinct line or two about your story. I know most of you are slapping your foreheads at me wondering how I missed something so basic but this blew my mind. Again, keep in mind that I shook my fist at outlining yelling that it couldn’t contain me.

The premise statement gets at the narrative heart of your story and it’s the very thing I’ve been struggling with FoS. I had scenes, I had twists, turns, and some motivation here or there, but I couldn’t very clearly explain what my story was about. And now I can (sorta).

It’s a work in progress (when isn’t it, honestly) but my Festival of Shadows premise goeth thusly:

“In a town filled with ghosts, witches, and other miscellaneous members of the undead, stubborn reporter Mariela Hudson seeks answers to the uncanny disappearances of her fellow citizens and to also uncover the mysteries of her past with the reluctant help of an intern who sees spirits and a cynical coworker. Their efforts draw the ire of a monster in the shadows that threaten the town.”

I’m still tinkering with my story outline so I would really love to learn your favorite outline strategies in the comments below. For those who don’t outline, how do you craft your stories?



How Outlining Has Taken Over My Life

For the longest time, I detested outlining. Well, maybe that’s a bit too dramatic. I was largely indifferent to it.

In the first phase of my writing passion (middle school to high school), I thought writing outlines was pointless. I just wrote. Brazenly, passionately, badly. I was discovering a part of myself that I never knew before and things like planning and outlining were foreign hindrances that I didn’t bother indulging in.

Even as I grew more self-conscious about my writing, I still didn’t think outlines would help me. After all, I was more of a free write writer. My first “novel” was me coming up with ideas at the spur of the moment and then carrying onto the next thing. Why spend so much time on something I may not follow through on? What’s the point of planning stuff out when the best strategy would just be to get the idea down and see where it would take me.?

But those years are filled with basic idea sketches, character thoughts, isolated scenes and WIPs that went nowhere. My early writing self couldn’t get my mind out of  (what I pretentiously termed at the time) “novel-length” concepts. Ideas that couldn’t, wouldn’t, will not fit in a short story. They were epics of adventure, love, magic, and chaos!

But I wouldn’t  put the work into those ideas. I obsess over them, write out the basic start, then move on.

In college, I started to reject the notion of “novel-length” concepts in favor of short stories. I didn’t want to start anything that couldn’t be finished in 20 pages. I got caught up in finishing stories. A lot of ideas were allowed to die because I didn’t think I could complete them. On those rare occasions when I tried to go beyond that, I found myself stuck. I write passionately for 20, 40, maybe 60 pages but then I would get stuck somewhere.

I didn’t truly start to embrace outlining until 2017 when I started the Festival of Shadows. I wanted to write a story centered around a group of characters I created. I also wanted to try my hand in a long cohesive narrative. So I tried outlining and I’ve been converted.

Now I live by the outline. Outlines have become my guide and savior. I worship at the bullet point altar and weep at the feets of schedules and planning. Every major project I prelude with an outline. I’ve finished three different outlines for stories at the moment. Two, I’ve officially started acting on.

But of course, outlines aren’t sacred texts. A good 50 percent of the Festival of Shadows outline was changed, rearranged, or ultimately discarded because I wanted to do something else. My outline kept me on track, however. Even if I didn’t like the initial route, writing it down gave me a better sense of what I wanted to do instead. The writing process usually helped me decide (rather than hoping my imagination would drop me a sign, out of the blue to help me fix all those dirty plot holes).

Outlines help me visualize the plot. I’m pretty good at coming up with the beginning and end of a story. The middle tends to be this big gray blob with bits of clear details sprinkled in. When I try to reach for them, they’re lost in the mess of this big unknown.  I tend to get really intimidated which leads to a lack of motivation. I do all I can to make the idea more and more concrete lest I lose interest (which has happened to me with too many other stories).

My outlining process tends to be pretty involved. My most recent one numbers 14 pages, single-spaced, with lots of bullet points (I’m OBSESSED with bullet points). And that was the second draft of it.

I wish I can be a low key outliner who can get their whole novel planned out on a single sheet of paper. That’s the real dream.