Wednesday, June 20, 2012
To Outline or Not to Outline
Dear readers and writers,
There's a never-ending argument among writers about outlining, with passionate advocates on both sides. One of my writer friends posted recently about how important an outline can be to connections, to underlying themes, to making sure no balls are dropped. My thought is this: If you can do it, yes, it can do all those things. I'm in the no-outline camp for my own writing. I have nothing against those who can do it. But when I outline, my writing resembles a sixth grade essay, not the kind of subtle, interesting prose I would enjoy reading myself. I need the element of surprise in drafting the fictional story to keep my interest high. Once I've constrained the spirits with an outline, the life has drained out of it and I can't write it any more.
So does that mean my fiction is un-connected, without persistent themes, and full of disconnected dropped balls that beg for catches and resolutions? Yes, in my SFD (refer to Anne Lamott for translation of first draft epithet). But that's okay, because during revision (which is really re-visioning the whole for me) I can rearrange, cut, add, stream in thematic references, and find and fix the dropped balls. That is a very different job for me than the writing itself. I suppose it is a lot less important and intrusive for the outliners, but I love the way it feels like working a jigsaw puzzle. I have all these pieces. How am I going to optimally fit them together into a complete story? Looking at the box is OK, but so is correcting the box. Some of my no-outline friends refer to this method as post-outlining. I must say it has things in common, but I do most of it in my head by reading and thinking, rather than making that outline on paper.
But whatever you do, the important thing is to connect the dots at some point during the process. Your payoff with an outline is efficiency. My payoff without is suspense (for me) and freshness (for readers). I think I also probe deeply into my characters in places where the story might not finally have to go, but where the depths enrich the development of that character. So while I cut out a lot, those pieces have contributed to the background in important ways.