Tag Archives: outlining

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

are you grandmothering your manuscript?

Grandma Frog by E.R. Crowell

Grandma Frog by E.R. Crowell

I was once a manuscript’s grandmother. When I drafted my first novel, I was like a grandmother to my characters–heck to the whole story itself–I thought everything my characters did was adorable. If they wanted to toddle down a rabbit trail, I tagged along, allowing the little darlings do or say pretty much anything their hearts desired. It was fun!

As a doting grandparent, I said, “Well, the kids are only here for such a short time. Let them twist the plot to smithereens. Who cares if this dialogue doesn’t contribute to the story. We’ll clean up the mess later.” Oy. And such a mess they (we) made. Like cleaning up the PB&J on the walls after the grandkids go home, the revision process that followed was messy and painful.

I will confess that I chose the “grandparenting approach” intentionally (and in my defense as a once novice writer, unwittingly) because I thought writing that first draft was all about discovery. Who could work from an outline, I thought. How boring to know how the story will end ahead of time. It’s the not knowing that pushes you to keep writing. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

I’ve since learned (through much wailing and gnashing of teeth) that parenting a manuscript is the way to go. Motivated by love for my characters, I have disciplined myself to tell them no. I must also allow my sweeties to make bad choices and to get themselves cowlick-deep in doo-doo (something a rescuing grandma could never do). And I have come to appreciate pre-writing and planning because, not unlike a parent who is looking out for a child’s future, it propels me to be more productive and create a stronger product sooner than I might otherwise.

Parenting and novel writing have another thing in common–the goal is to work yourself out of a job. A parent wants to raise a happy, independent, responsible adult, not a kid who stays a kid forever. A novelist wants to create a fully-formed (and finished!) story, not a germ of an idea that never develops or sits half-finished in a file forever. Planning and preparation aren’t guarantees, but they do increase your chances of finishing what you started and being pleased with the result.

Consider these jump starters to help you parent your manuscript to maturity:

* Snowflakes Try Randy Ingermanson’s amazing Snowflake Method
* Notebook Paper Create a traditional outline (you know, Roman numerals, et al.)
* Index Cards Draft the novel scene by scene on index cards (pretty ones)
* Paper and Markers Use mind mapping (great for very visual writers, plus, you get to color)

(Now, do any of these sound that scary?) 

If you’ve always taken the grandparenting approach, let me challenge you to give one of the jump start methods an honest try. It will feel confining and foreign at first. But I think you’ll be delighted to discover, as I did, that these methods still allow you lots of wiggle room to be surprised by your characters as you get to know them, to “see” something new you hadn’t anticipated in the planning phase, and just like a proud parent, you may see your work grow to become something even better than you first imagined.

If you’re going to write a novel, you have two choices: Jump in or wade in. Either way you’re gonna get wet. So, why not give manuscript parenting a try?

To Grandma, For being my first editor and giving me the best writing advice I’ve ever received: ‘Christopher, I think you should wait until you’re done with elementary school before worrying about being a failed writer.’ ― Chris Colfer, The Wishing Spell