Friday, July 2, 2010

On Outlining (Oh No, Not Again!)

I've been listening to some great author podcasts recently, courtesy of Valerie Khoo and the Sydney Writer's Festival (you can find them on iTunes if you want to check them out). Yesterday, I listened to Fiona Mcintosh, a fellow Adelaidian who has a phenomenal reputation but whose books are yet to reach the top of my burgeoning reading pile. She had some interesting points to make about the writing process, and particularly about the outline vs. writing by the seat of the pants approach (I know, I'm still harping on about this).

I would categorise Fiona as being at the extreme fringe of the anti-outlining faction. When she starts to write, she has no idea about anything - who her characters are, what will happen to them, where it will happen, what the world looks like, and so on. All of this, she insists, leaps out at her as she goes along, and the numerous loose and dangling threads have never failed to order themselves in a semi-miraculous manner, right towards the end of the book.

Now, while I don't subscribe to that approach (see recent posts), she did make one very interesting point. In her view, the main problem with outlining is that when you're outlining, you're not writing, and therefore you're not bringing the story forward. In her opinion, even writing a noodle-soup of dud ideas is better than not writing at all.

The reason this hit such a chord with me is that since I identified my need for an outline, I feel as if the book has ground to a halt. Sure, I've been spending time thinking about it, what happens and the backstory and so on, and I've come up with some interesting thoughts and ideas. But up until the last few days, I haven't written anything. My word count has stopped at 22,000, like a dodgy odometer on an old car.

While this might be good from the point of view of planning, it's not doing a lot for my piece of mind. There's something wonderfully satisfying about churning out the words, not matter how bad they might be. It shows you're progressing, you're actually getting somewhere. It boosts your confidence, particularly when the days are flying past and you have a sneaking suspicion the delivery date of June 2011 will be here before you know it.

So, enough outlining for me. A few days ago I picked up the dog's breakfast of a 22,000 word manuscript and resumed, although my recent planning means the story has a vast discontinuity (I plan on going back and fixing up those 22,000 words last). As of this moment, I'm at 29,000 words, within sight of the half-way mark. And it feels good. I feel like a runner who's had to spend a few weeks recovering from an injury, and can finally get on the track again and blow off the cobwebs.

I think in the end it comes down to balance. It's important to spend time outlining and planning, but you need to learn to recognise when it's time to start writing. It's OK if there are plot points yet to be clarified, or characters who are vague, or you haven't quite nailed down the landscape. All you need is a skeleton, a loose idea that you can build on as you go.

I think I've reached that point. Onwards we go.


  1. To outline or not to outline is a choice I have to make not only for every story, but several times per story.

    They've each got their benefits and their problems. When I don't outline I feel all tangled and unsure of what's happening, and terrified of the bound-to-be-daunting revisions, not to mention worried about the inefficiencies of the process. But when I'm outlining it rings hollow and I'm worried about the lack of progress and I can't fight off the idea that outlining itself is a waste of time because it changes so much in the writing anyway...

    You never learn to write per se, you just learn to write the book you're writing now! :)

  2. Yes, that's my dilemma exactly - worry about wasting time vs. worry about lack of progress. I think that's why I keep swinging between the two approaches.

    It's nice to know it's not just me!