murder by numbers; or, my struggle with outlining


Outlining and I don’t get along.

Teachers in high school are so pro-outlining that you expect they all belong to some secret outlining cult where they sacrifice stressed high school students and their stressfully written papers to the Higher God of Outlining. I had friends who outlined in high school, but I’ve never been an outliner. I also think that because all of my high school teachers told us time and again (some of them pounding the desk like evangelical preachers for the Greater Outlining Cult of the United States) that we had to write an outline in order to write a good paper, I was determined to prove I could succeed without one. Which, not to brag, but I did, and I did well. I had my idea, I knew where I wanted to go, but I never felt the need to write it down twice. What was the point?

I continued thinking this way all through undergrad, when my roommate would slave over her paper outlines and I would crack my neck, sit down at my desk, and churn something out in a couple of hours. It was never a finished paper, of course; it was just a very workable first draft, which I’d edit over the course of a few days or, deadline permitting, a few hours. It was an artform that I had perfected, and so, when I finally had my this is it, the big one idea for a novel, I approached it in the same way.

It was the worst writing mistake I’ve ever made.

My novel, Tough Luck, is about superheroes. Specifically, it’s about one superhero (who is in a bit of a moral gray area) and her struggle with the citizens of the city she protects while also battling a new villain that’s rolled into town. (You can see a more detailed explanation over here, on my Tumblr, where I answered an ask about the actual plot.) I approached this novel in a way I don’t usually approach stories–which is to say, I knew the ending first. I don’t like knowing the ending first, because I like going on a journey with the characters throughout the narrative. I learn things as they learn things; I think it makes it more authentic. Knowing the ending of a story was something I’d never encountered before. Knowing the ending made everything harder, because I had to figure out how to get to where I ended up. But I thought, I can totally do this the same way as I always do, I’m a champ.

Boy, was I wrong. (About doing it the way I always do, that is. I am a champ.)

I started about five or six drafts of this novel before I finally admitted that I needed to outline. I’m not very good at outlining. I had sort-of outlined a handful of the short stories I included in my senior thesis, and while the process had been helpful, it hadn’t always been the best solution to figuring out what made the story work. The only outlining I’d ever really done had been outlining chapters from my high school history textbook so I had working notes to study from. I knew how to outline that sort of material, but how did I outline my own brain?

It took me a while to psych myself up for it, but eventually it just boiled down to me plopping myself down with my handy-dandy legal tablet and starting to write. I don’t know if outlining would have helped me had I done it originally, but outlining after having so many false starts helped me see where I had gone wrong–why what wasn’t working, well, wasn’t working. There were times when I would write down an idea on the page that I had been working with through all six drafts and would think, Wow, that looks really stupid. It was a little demoralizing, realizing my idea was terrible and unworkable, but it helped me get perspective, which I had desperately needed.

My outline isn’t finished; I’ve decided to tackle it in stages. But when I went on vacation, I took my partial outline along for the ride. I was visiting my boyfriend, who is in medical school, and while he had class, I would hunker down in the living room with my laptop and my outline and just work. There were a few times where I had trouble getting something onto the page–the writer’s eternal struggle–but I was surprised by how easy it was overall to write when I had the outline sitting beside me. I didn’t need to look at it constantly, because writing it out had already planted the progression in my brain, but it was useful to have. I would look back to it when I’d reread a scene or a chapter and realize there was something missing.

Aha, I’d think, scanning down my rather scribbly outline. That’s what I forgot.

I’m certainly not advocating for the method that I used–starting and getting frustrated with about six first drafts is probably not the best way to write a novel. And I’m not even sure if I’ll outline the next project I work on after I’m finally finished writing Tough Luck. But if you find yourself stuck in the middle of your writing project–be it poetry, a screenplay, an academic paper, a novel, or whatever–maybe try outlining it. Sometimes jotting down the bare bones of your ideas makes it easier for you to visualize what works and what doesn’t.

What works for you when you’re generating a new creative idea? Tell us in the comments!!


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