The story congealeth, people, the story congealeth. (Not in the it-was-once-liquid-and-flowy-and-is-now-a-gooey-gloppy-glob way, but in the it-was-once-a-gelatinous-nebula-of-hazy-nothingness-and-is-at-least-now-a-gaseous-cloud-that-from-a-distance-resembles-something-substantial way.)
Not in this way:
But in this way:
The fact that this has taken so long, however, is why I will never again write a story without an outline. Ever. If someone nailed me to a desk right now and gave me a million dollars to complete a decent novel in a year WITHOUT an outline, I would have to tell them very seriously, “I am honored. But I cannot do this thing. I cannot run a country, wear skinny jeans, type with all five fingers, or do this thing.”
After a recent SCBWI conference, several writers and I went out and discussed this very topic. One writer said she liked the unformed “clay” of a story, shaping as she goes, with no idea how it would turn out. She liked the clay to surprise her, she said. Myself and a few other people vehemently rejected the appeal of clay. I think if you have an inner architect who will automatically place your words into comprehensible scenes as you go along, go for it. Shape your clay. But if your brain is somewhat nebulous to begin with—as, ahem, is mine—I need to force myself to do the architecting first. If my first novel exists for no other reason, it was to teach me that.
Of course I think it’s important to mess up in these areas, to find out what kind of writer you are.
An outline allows you to:
-Structure complex plot points beforehand, so that you do not waste time writing beautiful prose that will never see the light of day because it simply won’t work with the plot. Of course some of our treasured prose can’t be salvaged regardless, but minimizing this does help
-Sometimes it lets you be MORE creative to outline. If you know, for instance, in Chapter 4, Ellen must distract the school principal so that the other students can stage a coup, you are good to go: you have the bones of the story down. You know what needs to happen in Chapter 4 to move the story along. Now comes the filler, which is fun, which is where your nebulous brain is best employed. Your brain can play and cavort and imagine all manner of ways in which Ellen can distract the principal (let’s keep this rated G). HERE is where the “clay” can still surprise you. Some drafts of this chapter may not be interesting or work with the overall story, but that’s OK; you are still safely netted within your cushion of KNOWING WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN CHAPTER FOUR. That’s better than writing 50,000 words before wondering if Ellen should even be in school, if a coup makes any sense, if there’s a point to mentioning her school bus in Chapter 1 because you’re not sure if she’s even a student.
Isn’t it? Isn’t it?
To those writers who are clay-shapers, more power to you and your hardy inner architect/editors. To the rest of us, outlines can generally be a good idea. Plotting a book is hard work, but doing so AFTER you’ve written it is even harder.