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in the beginning…

there was an outline. and it was, well, i thought it was good, anyway. what it truly was, though, was my first concrete step to writing a complete book, and it was a success for that reason alone, regardless of the fact that it only distantly resembles Witness in its final form.

in preparation for buckling down on Book 2, and the outline process inevitably connected (for me) therein, i thought i’d post a pic of the original outline for Witness, in all its hand-written, recycled paper glory:

original outline for Witness(click to zoom)

if memory serves, this was written above the garage in late summer, in the days between a job i couldn’t live with anymore and a new (then) job as adjunct english instructor at the local community college. i’d made the decision to do it, and, unlike all other previous such decisions, i actually followed through and wrote this outline.

warning: soapbox monologue imminent

the outline was my saviour. i cannot say enough in praise of the outline. through high school, i’d never used such a thing, preferring instead to wing it the night before and revel in the procrastination high and generally successful results. it had worked for years.

(once i’d realized i was never going to attend MIT [thank you, algebra], i found much more success in the written word)

then i hit college, and had my first several papers, using the old winging-it method, butchered, skewered, and otherwise torn apart and dismissed. i think that last verb was the most painful. i felt i could write, and well, and to have someone tell me i couldn’t put together a clear, cohesive argument was a bit of a slap. (obviously, these posts have no such fears, as the only coherence is that of my momentary mind, which, as you can see, is anything but coherent)

it was a necessary slap, though, and well-intended. i had an excellent freshman college professor, as well as an anthropology professor who refused to accept crap. when my english prof introduced us to the outline, i was initially resistant, but my grades were suffering significantly, so i tried an outline. i think it was an essay on the variations of Don Juan in literature and theatre. it was like magic. it wasn’t without effort, but once my logical mind grasped the fundamentals, it aligned the wanderings and occasional inspirations of my creative mind with a clarity i had never known before.

within a couple weeks, i was helping other students develop outlines for their essays (and, yes, i’ll admit to writing several of them myself, sue me, i was a wallflower and people were paying attention to me). it was a genuine ‘moment’ for me, and every piece of academic writing that followed was either preceded by an outline, or succeeded by a poor grade. it was that simple.

it took a few more years for my creative writing to accept this possibility, however, and as a result, my stories were mostly dream-style, wandering, half-built constructions. i continued to write, holding firm to the idea of inspiration, until i found myself in a junior-year creative writing class, my first formal instruction/workshop/course of this kind.

the professor was a published author of short stories and a novel or two, and well received by critics for his work. his description of his writing process, as a strict adherent to detailed outlines, made the connection for me. unfortunately, this individual espoused such a rigid obligation to the structure of outlines, that it made the writing sound like work, not fun; like an office job, not a career; like a math problem, instead of the wonder and discovery i imagined writing to be.

while this only furthered my internal separation of fiction and outlining, for several years, it never truly left me. i wrote a number of stories in the meantime, most of them plot device driven pieces without real characters, clear voice, or emotional depth, and were duly rejected by the handful of magazines i submitted to.

i say handful, because that’s all i did. instead of feeling like i’d written something fantastic and absolutely had to be in print, i knew, in a place i didn’t really listen to, that my stories were still largely missing something. i still wrote the way i had in high school: several pages at a time in a rush of giddy inspiration, then bang my head against the wall for weeks on how to write the next page.

i can’t now recall which story i first used an outline for, which is odd, but it was several years after college, i think. i’d started to write an outline for stories after i got into trouble with my muse, but while this was better than nothing, it was still too little, too late. it did give me a framework to hang my varied and inconsistent inspiration from, which then let me continue to work in between. still, it was slow going to overcome the ‘work’ i connected with outlining.

in time, though, i found enough distance from that professor and his seemingly complete devotion to the outline, allowing me to see the value in what he’d taught, rather than react negatively to the perceived ‘work’ and ‘restrictions’ he described. just like my academic writing, i found myself achieving a clarity and coherence to my stories that had not previously existed. further, as i spent time organizing the structure (plots, story arcs, etc.), i realized i could keep the outline to whichever level of detail suited me. i could get down to individual scene details, or i could stay in broad scope. it was up to me. this was an important discovery, and one which has been the cornerstone of how i understand my writing.

for me, then, writing is controlled chaos. if i have no boundaries, then i find myself unable to make decisions. i need boundaries, guidelines and so on to frame my work. they may be self-imposed (a particular genre, world, character, plot), or externally imposed (writing prompts, deadlines, etc.), but i work best with a sense of the landscape i’m working in, and an outline formalizes that landscape.

this has been a personal discovery in my daily life, as well, as i work best in environments once i understand how things work. i feel it necessary to find out the hows and whys of my work as it is, before i can confidently perform effectively. understanding this about myself on a basic level has only further proved the validity of this process in my writing, and helped me develop it.

this isn’t to say that i am stuck in that landscape, however. it’s my touchstone. like i always tell my english students, use spell check, but never trust it. i use my outlines, but i allow myself the freedom to change my mind. more accurately, i allow myself to follow the story where it must go. without my initial outline, however, i don’t even know where to start and my writing immediately reflects that.

that, though, is a meandering post for another day, as i’ve fairly beaten this one to death.

1 Comment
  1. Begone foul tempter! Speak not of the wretched structure of this evil outline! Let chaos run free! Embrace the freedom!

    Then again my stories can never go past the first chapter…hmmmm.

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