Every so often, when I’m speaking to a group of teachers, one of them asks if I outline my novels before writing. “My kids resist outlining,” the teacher confesses. “I want to go back and tell them you agree with me that outlining is the correct way to start. You do outline, don’t you?”
My answer always begins with something along the lines of, “I hate to disappoint you, but…”
For years, I wanted to be an outliner. For my first novel, I followed a plan in a craft book that promised I could write a novel in three months. Not only did I outline my novel down to the level of the scene, I also wrote up a production calendar that specified exactly how much I would accomplish every day.
I was determined, bordering on desperate. I was going to make this work. And I followed my plan to the letter.
Unfortunately, about a quarter of the way through the first draft, things began to fall apart. I got a niggling feeling in my gut that something wasn’t quite right, but I gritted my teeth and stuck with the program. The not-right feeling grew stronger and stronger, until I no longer believed in what I was writing. I was still putting words on the page, but the story had long since given up the ghost.
Yeah, I finished the draft in three months. And then spent a year and a half crashing through the underbrush trying to figure out where I’d killed the story and attempting to raise it from the dead.
And yet the urge to outline persisted.
Of writing novels, E. L. Doctorow has famously said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
For some of us, this is a scary journey. We want to reach for a map or GPS to assure ourselves that if we invest so much time, hope, and heart in this project, we’re actually going to get somewhere.
The poet Kim Stafford once quoted a jazz musician (whose name I forget): “Creative people are comfortable not knowing…yet.”
I tried outlining my next three books. The most useful thing I learned was how to tumble more quickly to the exact moment when the thing keeled over.
Then I gave myself over to not-knowing.
I can’t say it’s been exactly comfortable. While many writers seem to have some kind of inner sonar to guide them, I tend to stumble into quagmires and pit traps, taking vast amounts of time and energy to extricate myself and find my way back to solid ground. Panic is familiar territory — the gut-level feeling that I’m stuck, that I’ll never get out, that this whole thing has been a massive waste of time, that my career as a writer is over.
But so far I’ve always (knock wood) managed somehow to find my way home. And doing this repeatedly has given me the perspective to stand back and say to myself: Oh, I see you’re in that scary, not-knowing place again. Well, carry on!
This would have been the end of the story, except that before beginning my current novel I took a class from a friend and decided to give outlining another try. For two weeks I sat at a card table with stacks of index cards, and in the end I had a scene-by-scene plan. The cards held for about three-quarters of the way through a draft, which spared me no end of blundering and panic. Only time and readers’ reactions will tell if I brought the thing home alive. But I’m feeling hopeful and excited right now.
So, to that teacher, I say: Tell your students to experiment. Tell them to try outlining, try partial outlining, try writing scenes in no particular order, try crashing around in the bushes without a map. Tell them that it’s part of their job as writers to find a way that works for them, and this might take a while. Tell them that fear and confusion are part of the drill. Tell them that the correct way to write a novel is just however you can.