Forget Diamonds; Outlines Are a Girl’s Best Friend

I just realized I’ve never actually directly discussed how I go about writing a story.  I noticed because I have a post drafted in which I went to insert a link to this discussion, only to discover I’ve not actually posted it. Oops.

Basically, I am an outliner and a quilter in my writing.  I have to have a detailed scene list in order to write start to finish.  Most of the time, long before I know the full story, I will find myself writing key scenes of action or dialogue.  These are reference points for me to go back to in developing the overall plot, and they may or may not change when the story catches up with them as I write from the beginning forward and fill in the spaces between those scenes.

For me, having the basic concept is not the same thing as the story being outlined.  When a story is fully outlined,I know the entire string of specific events that threads between the opening layout and the ending configuration.  An outline is not merely knowing that “scandalous girl meets very proper young man, who falls in love with her and redeems her name through marriage” but rather a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene guideline to what happens, where all that is left to be done is to make sentences out of the fragmented shorthand used in an outline.

I have never quite understood the writers who work without an outline.  I mean, I believe them when they say they do not, I simply do not understand how that works, because it does not work for me and never has.  I can’t finish something if I do not know how it ends.  I have about four different versions of a novel that I started, each about 20-30K words, all of which I had to abandon and rewrite because I kept getting a better idea for the overall story and changing everything around.  What was the point in that? I could have had a finished novel in the same amount of time and with the same amount of effort if I had had an outline in the first place and been sure enough about it that I stuck with it.

If I don’t know exactly what happens next, I meander through a scene and find myself with pointless scenes.  Or I quickly stop writing and start thinking, and lose my allotted writing time because I got lost in thought…most of it off topic, because sitting and just thinking doesn’t really work for me as a brainstorming style.  I do much better with multi-tasking, such as brainstorming while I’m washing dishes or driving to my parents’ house (several hours away) or running…basically doing something where I am half-focused on the physical task, leaving my brain to play with ideas and conversation snippets and work out almost subconsciously the details. 

Story development is, for me, a different part of the process than writing it all down.  I write quickly when I know exactly where I’m going.  I write quickly on the scenes that just pop into my head and demand to be written.  The backfilling to stitch them together is the hard part.

Well. That, and stringing them together in a way that makes sense, follows naturally, and doesn’t feel plotted–but that’s another post….

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Forget Diamonds; Outlines Are a Girl’s Best Friend

  1. You said it. I’m a believer in outlining too. And a believer that when you know your ending, then only should you start writing. Super post.

  2. Thanks! I agree that in order to stay focused and productive on a story you (general you, AKA *I*) have to have at least a sketch, if not a detailed outline, of everything that happens. Otherwise you just have a situation and characters, not a story.

    Although I will point out that, as a romance writer, I start every story knowing my ending. Ha! Joke. I mean, yes, I do, but “and they lived happily ever after” isn’t the ENDING even if it is the last line of the story. I start every story knowing the aftermath, the denouement, not the–er–cllimax.

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