When I was in school, the one part of English class I dreaded were the boring mornings (I often had English first in the day) where we had to learn how to write an outline.
I hated it for three reasons:
1. I had tutors and my parents teach me all about outlines in previous years, so this wasn’t anything new.
2. I disliked having so much structure in a story.
3. I disliked having to map out so much of the story in advance, because then it felt like I had already told it, so why write it?
I remember we had to learn how to outline for research papers (which oddly enough, I never did after high school, despite claims that everyone and their uncle wrote research papers seemingly daily in university classes and at their jobs), as well as fiction outlines (again, something I seldom did, because it took all the fun out of writing).
Basically, I was a brat who didn’t want structure to interfere with how I felt my story should develop. I didn’t want no chocolate on my peanut butter, no girls in my clubhouse and damned sure didn’t want “the man” telling me how to be creative.
Note: When I do develop that time machine / meet up with Doctor Who, we’re totally going back in time to shake some sense into younger me.
The outline is not your enemy. It doesn’t have to be your best friend, you don’t have to date it, or listen to it prattle on about how you can’t leave the empty milk bottle in the fridge.
The outline is just a tool, and like any big tool, if you treat it with healthy respect, it will help you out.
How did I figure this out?
Well, I started by getting so fed up with myself about my progress on my novel, The Kestrel Soars, that I decided to get a copy of Scrivener, which came highly recommended by Matt Forbeck (when you’re done reading this post, I want you to go out and get your hands on Carpathia. Please, do this, and enjoy yourself.)
So I install it, and start plugging my novel into the suggested skeletal format. Now in my head, where this and like 20 other stories reside fully formed, I figured this was just sort of a “jump through hoops” act, and I’d be maybe just making a title page and sending my story off later the same day. Because, to me, that story was done.
Oh no. Not even close to done.
When I broke down the chapters into scenes, and the scenes got sorted out by their arcs and progressions, my novel was…well, naked and gooey.
I’ll take one order of discouragement, and supersize that please. With extra You Suck sauce on the side.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to quit, because I had a story somewhere in my head, and I knew if I quit, I couldn’t live it down. And I knew that I going forward would be way hard, and I have this voice in my head that screams how much of a blackhole of failure I can be, so I was better off just not doing anything – just go back to editing other people’s things and put it off. Put it off, don’t take action, in fact, let’s not even edit today and just play a game.
That voice, if you can’t tell, is NOT on my Christmas card list. That voice, if you have to know is a tricky sumbitch that at times sounds like me, like my parents, like the English teachers who I hated, like women I dated, like more successful friends, like well-meaning friends who just ‘want to help’, like random people I work with, and sometimes, like the Muppets.
I didn’t quit. I didn’t stop. I didn’t put it off. I grabbed a stack of notecards and feverishly wrote out my scenes. And when I reached a spot where I didn’t have a scene….I wrote something down.
I kept asking myself, “Okay, And then…” or “Therefore…” because in my head, to my way of thinking an outline is just a rough map of where the story goes. It doesn’t have to be the rigid roman numerals and capital letters of term papers. It doesn’t have to be the overly detailed soul-sucking stack of facts.
It’s a way to get my brain on paper. And the story, if I want to publish it and have people buy it, has to be on paper.
So I came up with 35 scenes, in an order that tells a story.
I had 18 written, which I hacked, chopped and robo-built into 9 chapters.
Yeah, this book wasn’t done, but the voice was shocked into silence because I pushed myself to actually find the value in structure.
And there is a value in structure. My teachers may have begrudgingly doled it out because they got a paycheck for killing time until retirement and they didn’t give a shit, but it’s on me to do something with it.
Structure actually helps my story. (Scrivener, by the way, totally rocks).
The lesson here? Don’t always run from structure. And don’t think that you have to resign some of your power, your creativity and your fun/happiness to apply someone else’s structure to your stuff. Find a structure you’re 60-80% happy with, and make it yours. Get all Jeet Kune Do on it. (This is also known as “making it your bitch, and discard the stuff that doesn’t work“)