This post is going to be strictly about how I work as a writer. I’m not ever going to pretend that my way is the be-all, end-all, best of all possible ways to put one blood-smeared, sweat-drenched word after another until they turn into a narrative. I offer this disclaimer mostly because I wish all people who offer thoughts on the writing process would do so, especially teachers. I’ve sat in enough classrooms where the professor’s method is presented as the One True Way of Writerdom, with no caveats or addenda, that it thoroughly rankles me when somebody doesn’t cop to just being some dude who found a method of tackling this whole writing thing.
That having been said…
For a very long time—really, an unnecessarily long time—I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. And it worked, surprisingly well at times. Some of my most inspired bouts of Making Shit Up came when I had no plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn, hurtling onward through the dark space in the creative process still marked “Here There Be Dragons,” building my airplane as I figured out which parts it needed to stay aloft.
The airplane, in this metaphor, is whichever story I was writing at the time. Just… For clarity. A lot of stuff was happening in that last sentence. I’ll offer a formal apology later, in haiku.
It’s a lot of fun, that process of spinning gold from only the accumulated detritus of your creative subconscious. Nothing quite like it, managing to create something miraculously coherent, having all those pieces fall into place at the end and being able to say, “OUTLINES BE DAMNED, THIS SHIT WRITES ITSELF!”
Unfortunately for me, it was also a slow process. I could only sit down to write if I knew where the story was going, which meant working things over in my head for days, letting the ideas sit there in my cranial slow cooker until something clicked and I knew what the next step had to be. Then I could have a flurry of days where I’d be productive, until I ran up against that same problem of not knowing the next stop on the map. If I was lucky, my brain would be cranking on all cylinders, and I could be mapping out the future parts as I hammered out what I already knew needed to happen. That certainly happened on a few stories.
But I’ll tell you what this process did not work for.
People who know me will tell you that I rarely go to the trouble of locking my attention in on a movie for two solid hours unless I’m in company I can talk about it with afterward. Now imagine trying to watch the movie, but the film stops, stutters, scrolls back, takes weird and unnecessary detours into narrative dead ends, and generally dicks around until it finally ends three years later.
That was how it felt trying to write a novel without a plan.
But outlines? Well, back in the day I would have told you they were too restrictive. That outlines shuttered in that wonderful universe of possibilities that made writing so much fun as a journey of discovery, reducing the whole broad spectrum of reality into a narrow, predetermined pathway from beginning, to middle, to end. I was a free spirit, damn it all! I couldn’t be caged! I refused! I raged at the heavens! Et cetera! Et cetera! Et cetera!
I even felt like I hadn’t needed an outline to grind out the horrendous fantasy novel I spent most of my high school years writing in primarily blue pen, in a positively tremendous series of steno-sized notebooks. “I finished this!” I thought to myself. “It took three years, but novels are supposed to take a long time!”
Looking back on it now, though, I realize a few things.
- The novel is straight-up shit. It’s not just mostly okay with a few veins of shit shot through its bedrock. It’s a fecal goddamned swamp.
- I needed to write all that shit. I learned a lot of things. Like how it’s difficult to make an assassin a Good Guy, and how characters act different ways to different people. I didn’t become a miraculously wonderful writer due to the three years I spent on that tripe, but it was a big chunk of the manifest nonsense every writer has to crank out before they can get to the good stuff.
- I actually did have an outline.
See, I gave up on that (I cannot stress this enough) absolutely terrible novel only a few thousand words in. I was lost. I had no idea what to do next. And, naturally, I lost interest and instead invested my time in other pursuits, which tended to include Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, and whatever Gundam show Toonami happened to be running at the time.
Then, one day in Pre-AP Pre-Calculus (I was into calculus before it was mainstream), I started doodling in one of those steno notebooks I mentioned.
And in doodling, I drew a goddamned map.
That was my outline. Just looking at it, I knew immediately where my characters needed to go. Shit, they needed to go to the tower of the handsome elf necromancer, who had one skeleton hand, like Mozenrath from the Aladdin TV series! And then they needed to get chased into the… Lost Lands, or something, which was a forest sealed away in another dimension, where the dark elves were banished. Then they needed to be stalked by a vampire across the giant bridge forged by the mer-people and after crossing the bridge they would get to the faerie kingdom in the heart of the mountains where they would meet a librarian who was also a dragon i swear to god no pot was smoked in the making of this novel
MY POINT IS, the map told me where I needed to go. Literally. So I connected the dots for the characters, one location after another, and that map saw me through to the end of 150,000 words of abject (but nonetheless epic) horse hockey.
I should’ve realized that the map was basically an outline at the time, but nobody’s very bright when they’re a senior in high school. Your brain just isn’t developed enough to make the connection that a map that is a series of places is fundamentally analogous to an outline that is a series of bulleted events.
So onward I scrabbled, not realizing, trying to write without outlines throughout college—succeeding sometimes, failing often. It wasn’t until about 2011 that I had my grand epiphany. I was preparing for NaNoWriMo—my previous attempt, my junior year of college, had fallen apart due to a lack of planning and my unexpected casting in a lead role in a one-act play that semester—so I decided to try this outline nonsense. See if that could help me dial in my word counts.
Lo and behold, it did. I discussed the writing process for this particular novel before, The Black Hat Initiative, so I won’t rehash it here. But boom, three years later I had a completed novel. Because I always knew where I was going and where I had been.
And those outlines for me don’t limit the grand scope of the world I have to play in. What they really do is winnow down the infinite possibilities and infinite combinations in the world of the novel to a manageable subset of possibilities and combinations. I can still surprise the everloving hell out of myself, even following an outline.
So here’s my suggestion: if you’ve never written using an outline before, give it a go. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe it won’t. But all you can do is try.