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I just came across this article on outlining. It's worth a read.

To Outline or Not to Outline? by Timothy Hallinan

Yes, very interesting. I could relate to almost everything he said, and recall feeling most of the things he said he's felt when writing.

I too do very little outlining. I too let the characters have their lead. I too allow the story to move on its own heading, and try to get out of the way. I too go back and make changes in the early parts to accommodate where the story has taken itself.

One problem I have with talking about how to write a story is that once you write it down, like he does here, it's easy to quibble with it, because, for me, the process tends to change, tends to be different each time I write. So saying to do this, or do that, isn't always accurate. The rule seems to be, for any one story, there are no rules. Or, there are rules, but only for that one book.

One thing I've found that is different from what he relates is, I find it important, for me, to have an idea at the start of where the book is going. If I have no ending in mind, or no resolution of events in mind, then I often flounder. Like everyone here, I imagine, I write a lot more beginnings than I do full stories. The ones I get bogged down on, the ones I don't finish, frequently are ones I didn't really know where I was going when I started. When I do know that, I know where to point things as I write, and if I keep things headed in that general direction throughout, I tend to get there, and have a finished story.

It was fun to read the article because so much of what he says, I agree with. So much is exactly what I feel. If I try to outline a story in any depth and detail before I begin, then try to write to that outline, in almost every case, I get bored with the story and stop writing. I think it's because, it's the creativity I feel when I'm writing that I love, and outlining seems to rob the actual act of writing of that ability to create on the fly. Without that, the writing because too mechanical, too prosaic, and more like, as I heard in my youth, a job of work.

Thanks, Camy


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If I try to outline a story in any depth and detail before I begin, then try to write to that outline, in almost every case, I get bored with the story and stop writing.

Cole, I suggest that the reason you have this issue is because you have, by creating this outline, already written the story in full. By doing that, you have created your own 'paint by numbers' story, and working on it lacks any serious commitment and artistry from that point forward.

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It's a little different for me.

I start with an idea, a premise or an aim.

How I will get there I don't know. I do know I will be utterly willing to change and twist in any way necessary to realise my aim.

Having said that I must also admit, that if all the twists and turns prove fruitless, I stop. Sometimes I will return to the idea after a break of hours, days or years with a new insight that allows the creative process to continue.

I often begin a story and have to go back and forth before I can see where it should start. Knowing the aim is merely the focus, the details of the end are open to further realisation.

I see a lot of writing, particularly for movies where the writer has not bothered to tidy up his opening, let alone the ending.

Often it appears to me that the inspiration that causes the writer to begin the story is the very thing that should never be written at the start without some concealment of its relevance. But again this is very difficult to do deliberately without appearing contrived.

In many ways it is like modern music composition where a composer just starts playing scales or chords until creativity takes over and the actually composition begins. Many modern pieces of music sound like the composer forgot to go back to the beginning and remove those unrelated scales or chords that kicked off his creativity.

I intuitively know what I want to happen and I watch as it develops from my mind as I type.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, my mind veers in a different direction or develops an idea in an unexpected and delightful way. The more I allow this to happen, the more ideas I get. As I have said before, creativity begets more creativity.

When you curtail your creativity, or try to keep something for another project, you block the creative process. You can always go back later, and remove what is superfluous, what doesn't work. They may well be the seeds for another project, but it is necessary to get them to come forth when the inspiration strikes. They will form the resource for your future creations. The delightful thing is, you don't even have to write them down; just allowing them to exist for a moment is all it takes to create that resource; to be receptive to further ideas.

For me the surprise is not where the story goes or how it gets there. They are the details of expression that I must surprise myself by finding and recognise as worthy. I make no claim to being a master at any of this. It is simply how I find I work when I am not concerned with unrelated real life issues, (always a stumbling block.)

I do have to know what I am writing about before I start.

I can't say I understand the idea of characters writing the story or themselves. I'm sure it works well for many authors, but I don't have that personal relationship with my characters.

Neither do the characters lead me towards their idea of the where the story goes.

The challenge for me comes from working out the logical (and often irrational) relationships of the characters.

But no they don't write themselves, the story doesn't write itself, I find I'm doing all of that for my own purposes of telling a story. So my characters don't have a life of their own for me. The life of the character is for the reader to feel and if I have done my job as an author then that is what will happen.

Of course I do slip in and out of a character's psyche, much like an actor does when he is developing a role for the stage, ala Stanislavsky.

That intuitive process can take weeks to develop to a point where the psychical creativity, such as it is, can be written down, (or typed up.)

An outline is something I use from time to time to sum up directions and psychological developments. Most of the time I think I do that in my head, but when I have put it down on paper, I find the story never follows the outline as strictly as might be expected. It is only a guide.

By all means discussing these things is very worthwhile, but also recognising what works, is the thing that matters, and may well be different for each of us; even for different projects.

Of course you may just want to write a series of formula stories that make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, but that is quite often, another objective.


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I think there's no one system that works for everybody. I didn't outline my first novel at all, but got about three or four chapters in where I said, "whoa! I gotta get organized somehow." I finally just created a timeline with bullet points that had certain dates and a one-line description of what happens, and to whom.

For my second novel, I made the huge mistake of getting over-organized, almost writing out a short version of the entire story as an outline. The problem with that was, when I had to go in and actually write the novel, all the fun was taken out of it, because I no longer had the "discovery" process of stumbling on new and interesting twists for the story. That made writing the novel a chore. (This is the main point of the article to which Camy refers, and I agree 100% with the author. Over-outlining and over-thinking don't work for me.)

I resolved not to do that for my next novel. What I have now is just a loose, two-page synopsis of the entire story (to the end), plus a biographical list of the main characters, and a timeline of the main events. That's working to a point; my only problem now is having to fight illness and bad schedules.

I think the biggest hurdle for any writer to get over is the need to make everything perfect. I'm so anal-retentive, I agonize over every sentence I write sometimes, and it becomes too much after awhile. I have to kick myself into realizing, "it ain't never gonna be perfect -- just do the best you can and let it go." But it's an ongoing struggle.

Stephen King writes a lot about this in his book On Writing. He's written novels from several different methods: starting from the ending and working his way backwards, jumping around in various parts of the story, even starting with just a barebones title and no idea at all, and just seeing whatever comes out. Guys like that just seem to turn on the faucet and it flows out; the rest of it have to contend with the steady drip-drip-drip, which is far more frustrating.

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I am going to recommend (once again) Twyla Tharp's splendid book The Creative Habit - Learn It and Use It For Life, which discusses the issue of planning (outlines) versus creativity.

Quoting Twyla Tharp:

The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down t work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do if the process falls off track.

But there's a fine line between good planning and overplanning. You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.

Replace the word planning for outline and you have good advice for writing.

She goes on to say:

A plan is like the scaffolding around a building. When you're putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disapppears. That 's how I think of planning. It has to be sufficiently thougtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

In other words, an outline should be a scaffolding that gets the writer started, but it is not a straightjacket. Too many internet serial novels seem to go on and on without a scaffolding until they peter out. Even fine writers such as Driver Nine suffer from not having the scaffolding for their story, so the story simply ends, like a jogger running out of breath.

Twyla Tharp's book has hundreds of ideas on how to be creative, but within a context of structure, and many of those ideas apply equally to writing as to ballet, her specialty.

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I think I have to agree with Cole, here. When writing short stories, I seldom do any outlining and let the story go wherever the muse leads.

When writing longer novels, however, it is important to have at solid idea where the story is going, so I do a very minimalist outline, starting with what the book is intended to cover/convey, and then write a brief statement for each chapter explaining what that chapter is intended to do towards moving the story along to its conclusion. Like Cole mentioned, I too have gone back and made changes in a story to accommodate story and character development, albeit rarely. Still, I tend to let the characters take the bit and run with it. The result is that niche characters have turned into major players in the story because I understood who that character was, and how I could use them to solve a given problem.

The biggest challenge with writing epic fantasy is character management. It would be entirely too easy to invent a character every time you need one, leading to having a cast of thousands, so I try to hold the actual characters down to the bare minimum needed to keep the story moving realistically, after all, no hero, however great, can do everything himself. Keeping all those folks, and their characteristics straight can be a real pain.

In all likelihood, there are probably as many different systems as there are writers. Use whatever works for you, and the heck with the folks telling you how it should be done.


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When writing longer novels, however, it is important to have at solid idea where the story is going, so I do a very minimalist outline, starting with what the book is intended to cover/convey, and then write a brief statement for each chapter explaining what that chapter is intended to do towards moving the story along to its conclusion.

I agree 100%. I wish this was understood by the writers of those epic Nifty stories that go on for 60+ chapters and go nowhere, with no real ending in sight. Too many of them just kind of peter out, and the writer (and readers) just lose interest.

I think the key is to come up with a story idea, figure out how to start it, then determine a list of "bullet points" that have to happen in order to get you to the ending. True, there are examples of great novelists who sit down and start writing a story with no clue as to what the ending will be, but I think this is a dangerous tactic.

At least if you have a loose idea of the ending -- "romance breaks up, but lead character meets someone new and slowly manages to recover" -- you have a general direction of where you're headed. To me, if you don't do that, you run the risk of running around in circles, getting lost without knowing what the point of the whole story is. "No direction home... a complete unknown," as Dylan would say.

I once read a book on writing that devoted a whole chapter to a simple topic: "what is the theme of the story?" Essentially, in one sentence or less, what is this story about? The writer insisted that if you don't have a clear idea of what the essence of the novel is, the story will become vague and blurry, and ultimately won't be satisfying.

Sometimes the theme can be very simple, like "crime doesn't pay," or "honesty is the best policy." After reading this book on writing, I realized the novel I had almost finished could be boiled down to, "true love is worth all the risks." Once I understood that, writing the book became much easier.

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I think it is sometimes necessary to start writing in order to reveal the aim or goal.

So it might be less disconcerting to see all those beginnings of stories laying dormant, if we consider that many of them are nothing more than failures to find a goal. They are part of our creative thinking process.

As I said above, I find that once the aim is in mind, holding my focus on it seems to guide the writing.

Even so clarity of vision of the aim may alter as writing proceeds.

Writing is not a static process.

I think it is interesting to see that the author's thoughts about his aims or themes, are not always the same as the readers.

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Like Cole, I have a lot of beginnings and near finished stuff that get put to one side when they seem to get stuck. I then come back to them at a later date, and try my hardest to make them work. I haven't actually given up on any of them - though some have gathered rather more dust than others.

I've attempted NaNoWriMo twice (and by fluke got there). Yet neither of the 'novels' are finished. I know what I need to do, and yet the idea of a re-write (or two or three) is mind-bogglingly irksome, and puts me right off. Oddly, this doesn't mean I don't want to finish them. I do, but because I don't have an outline/notes/character references I'm put off, and honestly don't know where to begin. With an outline, probably. ;)

Frankly, I'm better at short stories because they don't need outlines and are far easier to 'polish'.


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I outline most of my stories. My outlines include the names of the characters, their relationships, place names, a timeline, and brief notes like "use New Brighton State Beach" or "Saturday post office hours are 9 to noon". I use Excel; I find it's easier to expand and modify my outline using a spreadsheet. What I don't do is actually outline the story itself (the plot). I tried that once and it didn't work. I never finished that story; I will get back to it some day when I've forgotten enough about it that it will seem new. I deleted the rows in outline spreadsheet that outlined the plot, chapter by chapter, with lots of detail, and left only the names, relationships, and timeline information.

Colin :icon_geek:

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