Sunday, February 27, 2011

Swimming With a Compass

I tend to shy away from using outlines. But earlier this week I found myself outlining an idea with unexpected enthusiasm. Now, looking at what I've got on paper, I think--perhaps foolishly--that it might work.

Feeling this kind of optimism at this stage of the process has never happened to me before.

What I've got is barely written, the faintest hint of smoke revealing a vague sense of shape, a few words scribbled into a semi-organized sequence to serve as prompts to kick-start my imagination.

I view the outline as a kind of starting line from which I can set off to explore the story rather than as a finish line (which is how I've always viewed outlines in the past).

Oddly, this outline doesn't feel confining, constricting, or limiting. It hasn't yet destroyed the surprise or undermined the spontaneity of the writing process.

Instead, it's become a way into the story, offering a doorway revealing how the pieces of the story need to fit together in order for the story to stand on its own without collapsing in a heap.

It may sound strange, but I don't even think of it as an outline. Rather, I see it as a time-line, a roughly sketched guide proposing what might happen rather than what must happen.

I'm amazed at the freedom that I've found using this outline.

I've got a sense of direction for the first time in a long time. It feels like I'm swimming with a compass in my hand.

Of course, I know an outline can't solve all my problems.

But I'm learning that it can help me see the structure of my story early in the construction stage. It can reveal what might be missing and, perhaps more importantly, where I might need to go next.

It's a tool to help me think about the story, not a straight-jacket to prevent me from exploring the story but an arrow pointing a way.

What about you? Do you view outlines as helpful tools or as obstacles that keep you from swimming into your story?

Write when you get the chance and let us know.

For more information on using various kinds of outlines, visit:


JoAnn Early Macken said...

Thank you, Bruce! I'm passing these links on to my Novel Writing students.

Andrea Mack said...

I've realized that I'm a person that needs an outline. Even though it changes sometimes as I write the story (and come up with better ideas), having that skeleton of where the book is going helps motivate me and give me direction when I'm writing.

Bruce Black said...

JoAnn, glad to help. Hope the students find the links helpful.

Bruce Black said...

Andrea, the key for me this time out was seeing the outline as a flexible tool (which, as you noted, can change sometimes) rather than as a collection of rules that I was required to follow.

tricia said...

Yes, I've never been able to stick to an outline either (I mean, the one and only time I made one!) But I do need to know the beginning and the ending of a book before I start, and then I can cut my way through the dark forest in the middle. May your compass steer you well, Bruce!

Bruce Black said...

Tricia, I'm not sure what prompted me to try an outline this time. Maybe it was getting lost in that forest one too many times! With a compass, though, the forest doesn't seem so dark, does it?

Aisha said...

Excited for you that this outlining process just may work for you- like you I'm not into outlining much because once I've done it I get bored and have no motivation to write out the story- I've found writing very bare-boned skeleton outlines helps me keep a focus as I write, but not get too bored either. Good luck to you!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Aisha. The danger in planning or outlining is that sometimes you can overplan and squeeze the spontaneity out of the writing process. So it's an ongoing balancing act.

aquafortis said...

Great resources--thanks!

I find that a diagram helps me more than an outline...a diagram plus supplementary notes! The problem for me is really that I associate outlines with school papers, and so I end up feeling like they're too rigid. So I do a sort of flow chart of the plot instead, and fool myself into thinking it isn't actually an outlining process. :)

Bruce Black said...

Outlines = school papers = rigid thinking. That's been the formula for me, too, for years, and why I avoided them.

But thinking of them as "flow charts," as you suggest, is a terrific idea.

Flow charts offer a writer a slightly different perspective on the process, granting us the freedom to flow unrestricted, which is what I love about writing in the early stage of a work-in-progress: that sense of limitless possibilities.