May 16, 2013

On outlining

I’m a bit in limbo at the moment, writing-wise – City of Stairs is off being judged and reviewed by any number of unseen eyes, and I’m just sort of sitting here, not wanting to jump into anything just yet because those judgments could be returned at any time.

However, after reading some interesting conversation over on Chuck Wendig’s twitter feed, I got a bit dragged into thinking about one of the thorniest writing questions out there:

To outline, or not to outline?

For those who don’t know, outlining is the process before a writer starts something when they essentially graph out everything that will happen in the book. It can be a summary, a chart, a timeline, however you want it, it’s basically an instruction kit for which part needs to go in which place at which time in order to Make The Book Go.

The benefits for outlining are several: for one, you know what happens. Each time you open up a blank page, you have a good idea of what should be on it. This is hugely valuable, and anyone who’s tried to write anything generally knows that.

For another, you will not forget necessary things. This is actually quite important: a book is a lot of moving parts, with plots surfacing during one point of the book and then submerging – still invisibly operating, unbeknownst to the reader – only to resurface at some incredibly crucial point down the line. There have been times when I’m rewriting something where I realize a character has received a piece of information from a source who has no business giving it; then I realize I had actually thought of a solution to this, and forgot to write it, which means I have to rewrite a lot more than I normally would have.

Which of course makes you ask – do I outline?

No. No, I don’t.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all being that, when I commit to a book, I usually do so knowing the start point and the end point. (I definitely know the end point – the start point often takes some readjusting.)

I know the image or feeling the book should end on; I know what I want the book to explore; I know the feeling and the ambiance and the color of the book; and so on, and so on, and so on…

So I have a very general trajectory. I know what I want to do. I just don’t quite know how I want to do it.

And that’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to know at all. The reason for this being that I am not actually in charge of anything I’m writing, or at least it feels that way. Books are their own things, their own identities, their own beings. Sometimes when I stumble on something that really, really works in a book, it doesn’t feel like I wrote it – it feels like it was always there, and I was just fortunate enough to unearth it.

I know it’s not always exactly quite like that, of course: books aren’t set in stone at the start. But they are organic: they grow and change and shape themselves. They know what they want to be, they have their own momentum, and my primary job is often just to get the hell out of the way.

More to the point, when a book or a character surprises me, that’s when I know it’s really going well. When something surprises the author, then it probably surprises the reader, and that’s good. Anything that throws off the audience but keeps them on the hook is a very, very good thing: the phrase, “That was exactly what I expected,” is not a positive thing to hear after someone reads your book.

A story must have room to breathe, and room to grow, I think. If I didn’t have that when I was writing, it’d take a lot of fun out of it.

But the question lurking in all this is… since you don’t outline, can’t that cause logistical problems?

And the answer is: oh my goodness gracious, yes.

I’ve had times in a book where a character didn’t really become themselves until the final third. I realize then, at that point in writing it, that they should have been this person from the start, so I have to go back and rewrite all their scenes to make them that person. This is actually extremely normal for me – it’s almost my default mode of writing characters. Find out who they are when it really matters, then go back and make them that person when it matters just a little bit less.

And there have been times when I’m writing a book when I think the book is looking at one thing, but towards the end I realize it isn’t, and I have to go back and adjust the path of the entire book until it rolls along and comes to the point where it examines the thing it’s supposed to. (This is less normal – knowing this is what makes me want to write the book. But it has happened.)

Are these really problems? I don’t think so. There are a lot of philosophies about writing, but one I subscribe to most is: writing is rewriting. Hindsight has 20/20 vision, and that’s even truer when it comes to writing. I rarely know what a book really, really is (or was supposed to be, I suppose) until I’m almost done with it. That’s when I have to go back and even it out, provide supports, make sure it’s paced properly – in other words, to use a coder term, to see if it properly compiles.

And I have tried outlining before (to a very loose degree), and in each case it didn’t turn out well. I had a fixed, outlined ending for characters in two different books, but when I was actually writing that book and writing their story, I could feel those endings changing, nudging me to different places… Yet because It Was Outlined, I felt obliged to keep it that way, and I violated their momentum by forcing their arc.

I didn’t keep the final stories in either case. I wound up having to rewrite them all anyway.

So my feeling is… since I usually have to rewrite outlined stories anyway, wouldn’t it be better to not outline at all, and give them the space to breathe and grow and become, well, more of themselves, as the saying goes?