a fine use for bullets

I hate outlining

I hate outlining

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Right you are E.L. Doctorow. I can’t argue with you.

Up until recently, I’ve been a writing pantser–someone who flies by the seat of her pants like a magic carpet. Weeeeeee!!! It was a fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, surprising, unfettered, chaotic, halting, sputtering, who-knows-how-the-heck-I-got-here way to write.

When I’ve considered a popular alternative, outlining, my skin literally crawled. No kidding. It wriggled clean off muh bones. (See why I can’t outline? I can’t even write without doubling back and making silly asides.) SO, anyway, outlining was not attractive to me. What a time and fun-sucker. Why not just jump in? I wanted to be surprised! At the same time, I liked the idea of pre-planning as a means of making steadier writing progress.

But as a card-carrying AntiOutlineist, I yearned for a way to enjoy the benefits of outlining without actual doing it. There were plenty of alternatives involving Post-it Notes, index cards or oversized sheets of paper, but I wanted something even simpler. It if could involve my adoration for list-making, that would be a bonus. That’s why I chose bullets. Round. Simple. Readily Accessible. Inexhaustible in supply.

Now, my little warm cinnamon crumb cake, you know I mean these kinds of bullets. . .

  • Yes,
  • I
  • knew
  • you
  • would.

When I recently approached an extensive novel revision, I chose bullets to help me compile the sequence of events and actions of my characters. I didn’t write long descriptions of each scene. I wrote just enough to ensure I’d have what I needed when I returned to my list later. As I compiled this list, naturally, I’d identify roadblocks. But then, I could easily scan back to see, and then change, the sequence of events to release that blockage. I was able to think through each character’s actions or responses and their natural consequences. I could think proactively about how to crank up the story’s tension or humor or tenderness.

And now, armed with my bullets (hardy har har), I’ve had an easier time approaching the revision process. Plus, I’ve felt energized and encouraged because the bullets serve as an assurance that it’s going to be okay. Keep going. You know you can work this out. You’ve already untangled your plot and mapped out a path for your characters. And I know they won’t fail to surprise me, so there’s still fun to be had.

E.L. Doctorow is right–we can’t just yack about writing, we need to actually do it. But, before you do, see how you like writing with a batch of bullets by your side. G’head. Give it a shot. (Ouch.)

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.  ~ Neil Gaiman

13 responses »

  1. Pingback: Go Ahead. Make a Scene. | Welcome to Frog on a Dime

  2. First of all, LOVE TO NEIL GAIMAN (and to you for involving him in this lovely post). Second of all, what an excellent idea. You make bullets sound fun. I’m currently in the Outline quagmire myself, coming straight from Pantser AA Meetings and not knowing which way to turn. It’s satisfying to know you’ve found something that helps you stay focused. There’s hope! Keep the fingers moving 🙂


  3. Love this idea! I’m in the middle of a novel revision myself, still untangling my plot. I didn’t use an outline, and I didn’t use bullets, but I *did* keep track of where I was in the chronology of my work as it progressed. Sort of a bullet-like, numbered list of the chapters, with a short description (like 3 words or less!) of what happened in each chapter. I’m so glad I did that! Even though it feels like a hot mess right now, I *know* where I am, and where I’m going.

    I think bullets are a great middle ground between outline and seat-of-the-pants styles. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who doesn’t fit perfectly into either camp. Thanks for a helpful post, Vicky!


  4. Awesome and useful, Vicky. As a book coach, we outline the entire book ahead of time using just headings and bullets, so one chapter might only have a two or three page outline, depending on the length of the book. You can pack a lot of ideas into one tiny bullet. Little bouillion cubes they are! Just add hot water and watch them dissolve into whole paragraphs! Yum!


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