Outlines and Inspiration

I’m not going to bore all five of you reading this blog with the excuses for why I haven’t been blogging, and why my wordcount’s still so low on To Circumscribe Eternity. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re here for, anyway.

will, however, point out that living in Dallas when the air conditioning’s broken is kind of like being trapped in Satan’s armpit. (My A/C-less Florida peeps are better equipped than I to judge whether they’re in Satan’s other armpit, or are in fact dwelling in his ass-crack, but my heart goes out to them. Love you guys.)

At the moment, I’m struggling with that dread beast, the Outline. The sad truth is that not everyone who hates outlines is capable of writing without one, myself included. Oh, sure, I can knock out vignettes without thinking twice, but when it comes to Big Plotty Things, I end up glaring at a blank screen, telling myself that I should be able to just write and let the characters lead me around while they do things seemingly independent of me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

I’m well aware there’s a lot of scorn heaped on the idea of characters having wills and agendas of their own. It’s (sometimes deservedly) derided as an excuse for writers to relinquish control of their writing, to react to criticism with what they imagine is a bulletproof defense: that’s just what the characters wanted to do, and the writer’s just transcribing it. But for some writers, our brains just work that way.

This isn’t to say that a writer should just transcribe what the characters in their heads do and then deny all responsibility. Quite the contrary: for me, it’s a collaboration between myself and the character as I see them. And it doesn’t matter if they exist somewhere in an infinite multiverse/the astral plane/the creative aether/my subconscious: it’s my fucking story, and I’m writing fiction. If I wanted to write the biography of someone who might or might not exist on some other plane of reality, with no editing or tightening of the plot, I’d be self-publishing and writing in the New Age category, not SFF.

That may actually be the most important lesson I’ve learned so far: as a writer of fiction, my first responsibility is to the story. Not the characters, not my eccentric and highly animistic belief system, but the story. And that means that if a character “just does something.” I need to figure out how that makes sense within the bigger plot. Sometimes that means changing the plot, and sometimes it means going, “Okay, that was fun and all, but now I need to switch to the version of events where you did this other thing. I wish you and your deus ex machina and your harem of attractive members of your preferred gender(s) all the best. Call me sometime, ‘kay?” It’s why fix-it fic exists in fandom spaces, but complaints still arise when everything magically gets better in canon: we want our fictional loves to be happy, but we don’t actually want to shell out money for nothing but fluff and spun sugar.

So I roll with the fix-its, I write scenes of platonic cuddling that may never make it into my final draft… and then I have to tell myself, “Okay, what would actually make a good story? Can I chase that down?” Because otherwise, I’d just sit around writing nothing but glorified hurt/comfort fic.

And I’m learning to make outlines.

It helps to think of it as a sort of trip planning: not a hard and fast guideline, but more a general map of what I’d like to do. Maybe the people I’m planning the trip for have tickets to a show that’s one night only, so that’s important, but there are a bunch of other times where they could go to the zoo, or an amusement park, or whatever. Maybe when driving to the amusement park, they pass the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine and decide to check out weird roadside attractions. There has to be some flexibility built into the schedule to allow for spontaneity, but without some idea of what’s out there and what they might want to go see, it turns into two people sitting in a hotel room (or, in the case of TCE, on a spaceship) looking at each other and going, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” And there’s very little as excruciatingly boring as that.

Getting the outline actually written, though, is still more or less like pulling teeth. I’ve been going through the Snowflake Method (And how awesome is the Scrivener template for it? Pretty damn awesome.), sulking and pouting the whole way. Do I have to eat my spinach? There’s ice cream right there. It’s not fair. I don’t have to fill out the long and obnoxious plot summary from the point of view of a secondary character, do I? I already did it for the two main characters. Can’t I just write my story now? This is stupid.

And then I have to remind myself how much better my writing is when I have some idea of what I’m doing, when there’s a concrete goal to work towards, when I can make actual informed decisions about where to go and what I can safely skip. Having the outline makes the fun parts even more fun. But my inner five year old pouts and sulks regardless, and I have to suppress the urge to pick the phone and whine to my mother about how this is hard. And stupid. Did I mention stupid?

I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“Mamiiiii, I don’t wanna write this outline.”

“Okay, then don’t write it.”

“But if I don’t write this outline, I’ll never finish my book!”

“Okay, then write it.”

“But I don’t wanna!”

“…I really don’t know what you want me to say, kid.”

“But… but…” And then I’d just make high-pitched whining noises at her until she says, “No. Stop. I don’t need this migraine. Write your outline. I love you. Bye.” and hangs up on me.

(I love you, Mom.)

Basically, if anyone ever tries to tell you writing isn’t work, they’re lying liars, and you’re allowed to kick them where it hurts. This is the shitty, tedious part. It’ll get better. I know it will. But in the meantime? So much whining. Be thankful you’re just getting the abridged version.

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2 Comments

  1. Outlining the plot from the POV of the secondary characters is a drag, I hated that bit too. But I loved the bit where you write the one-sentence summaries for motivation and conflict. I think the trick with any outlining method is to do the bits that work for you and modify the bits that don’t, that’s how I’ve come up with the method that I’m using now, and it’s great!

    • Yeah, I have the feeling I’ll end up modifying how I use it in the future. For a first try, though, I want to do even the parts that seem pointless and dull — if I don’t get anything out of doing them, I can always leave them out or modify them next time, but if I skip them the first time out, how will I know whether or not they help? And at times like these, it feels like my story needs all the help it can get.

      Of course, the real test is whether or not the delays that come from dragging my feet while outlining are greater than the delays caused by having no idea what my characters need to do next. The jury’s still out on that one.

      (Thanks so much for commenting, by the way. It makes me feel a little less like I’m just ranting into the void.)

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