Monday, November 12, 2012

Opinion — On Writing, To Outline Or Not To Outline

Writes His Novels Without Outlining
I once worked for a company that had horrible morale problems.  It was run on the whim of the CEO and owner. It was a pretty oppressive environment.  At one point, the CEO decided to hire a consultant who passed out questionnaires. After the answers were analyzed, it was decided that the problem was the rule-bound corporate culture did not encourage spontaneity.  Productivity and morale would be improved if employees were allowed to think and express themselves more freely.

The CEO rented an auditorium and required the entire staff (probably about 300) to attend.  The CEO stood on the stage with a pointer and a flip chart.  She explained this new revelation about spontaneity and wanted to do something about it.

“We will be more spontaneous,” she said, “and this is how we do it.”  She flipped the first page over.  “Rule number one….”

The feeling I had at that moment is what I often feel when someone preaches that the only way to write a novel is to do an outline first. Only a person who uses an outline would suggest that this is the only way.  A person who doesn’t use an outline would be open to the idea that an outline is another valid way to approach novel writing.  I’m joking, sort of.  But I think setting down the rules for creativity is self-defeating.  All of our minds work differently.
I’ve written about this before, but had my feathers ruffled by an article in a writer’s blog I regularly read.  I tried to comment, but after half a dozen attempts to type in the code to “prove I’m not a robot” and failing to get the letters right (I couldn’t make out the letters inside the box) I decided to approach this on my own blog.  In my world, I begin writing a story by writing, not outlining.

I came across this bit of dialogue in James Lee Burke’s new book, Creole Belle.  His fictional character Dave Robicheaux is talking with a not quite so fictional daughter, Alafair, who is a mystery writer in fiction (and in real life as well). Here, she talks with her father about her writing.

“… I’ve started a new one,” Alafair replied.

“What’s it about?”

I’m not sure.  I never am. I make it up each day.  I never see more than two scenes ahead.”

“You don’t make an outline?”

“No, I think the story is written in the unconscious.  You discover it a day at a time.  At least that’s how it works for me.”

And that’s how it works for me, though I haven’t the success of Burke or his real-life novelist daughter Alastair.

John Lescroat, Outlining A Must
From an earlier post of mine:
As time went on, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my failure to outline. Among the many who do not use the outline technique are Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Stephen King. On the other hand, there are those who do outline, who must outline. These, I’ve read, include such successful authors as Louise Penny, John Lescroart and John Grisham. Scott Turow, to be completely different, does an outline during his second or third draft.
Here’s what I posted here a year ago or so:
Using an outline might keep you from going up any blind alleys. Not using one might allow you to find a street you didn’t know existed. I do use a brief outline sometimes when I know what’s happening in the next few pages and I’m afraid I’ll forget what I was thinking. But that is more of a bridge than an outline. The real point of this is that different people write in different ways. Find out how you are most comfortable and most creative. I’d be suspicious of advice that put too many rules down that do not take into account the individual who will need to abide by them. If you’re not sure of the best approach for you, try both. If you choose one, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later. For me, writing by the seat of my pants makes me want to sit down and write to see what will happen next and at some point discover who killed the victim found dead in Chapter One.
Saying that there is only one way to create art or tell a story is the same as demanding that everyone be right-handed.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

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