So, why outlining? First, a caveat:
One of the most valuable pieces of writing I ever got was at Clarion, from my two instructors, Karen Joy Fowler and Tim Powers. They essentially said that the only right way to write a novel was the one that produced a novel. That didn’t seem very helpful at the time, when I had written only one really bad novel.
But the point I eventually figured out, was that they were saying that novels could be written using any method if you stuck to it. Karen was a pantser. She started writing and just kept going until she had a novel. Tim was a compulsive researcher and outliner.
But what I really wanted, back then, was for someone to tell me what had worked for them so I could try it out and see if it worked for me.
See, the problem I kept having while I was writing even short stories was that I would get so many ideas of where to go next that I would not be able to hold them all in my head, and this led to frustration and time-wasting while I desperately tried to remember what I was supposed to be writing now, as opposed to ten pages from now. So here were the benefits of outlining for me:
Remembering The Ideas I Had: I can’t tell you how many times I would get to the end of a scene I was intensely into and then just… stop. Where was I going with this? I had a plan. I had the plan just an hour ago. But what was it? It was gone. It was so good and I was sure I would never forget it. But I did.
If you’re not the kind of person this ever happens to, then I’m sure this is laughable. That’s okay: you have one less reason to become an outliner. But I don’t believe I’m the only one it happens to.
The outline ensures that I can simply look at it and say, “Ah, yes, that’s where I was going.”
Revealing Contradictory Ideas: In the heat of evolving the story, it’s very easy to come up with MANY cool ways to tell it. Oooh! What if the aliens are super-fast carnivores and our heroine has to lay a trap for one. Oooh! What if the aliens are natural hunters and she leads them on a long chase around the island, and..?
See, there’s nothing wrong with those ideas. Either will work. But they can’t BOTH work. A fast carnivore will, by definition, run our heroine down very quickly.
The outline doesn’t stop me from having to make these choices, obviously. But it does reveal the contradictions quickly, and avoid having to throw out pages of prose because I wrote myself into a corner.
Being Able To See The Pattern-Flow Of The Whole Story: This is probably the biggest benefit for me, though it’s kind of a combination of the first two advantages. Scribbling out and refining an outline is great for getting the whole thing down and being able to quickly spot where you have contradictions, or long stretches of nothing, or events that don’t logically follow from one another. It allows you to fix those things before you’ve written, say, 50 pages of prose, 40 of which are now crap.
So, if you’ve found this useful, you now have an outline.
Now you’re ready to outline!
I’ll explain what I mean by that tomorrow.