Monday, October 04, 2010

I. To Outline or Not to Outline

By Bryan Gruley

I’m frequently asked whether I outline my books before I write them. Not really, I always say.

But maybe I should say yes.

A little background: I’m a child of Catholic education from Grade 1 through Notre Dame. I was diagramming sentences before reaching puberty. The nuns, priests, and Mr. John Kessel also drilled us on outlining. It involved Roman numerals and capital letters and lower case Roman numerals and lower case letters and lots of indentation.

I loved outlining. I scratched outlines on legal pads that nearly ran longer than what they were written for. I outlined every essay, newspaper story, and magazine feature I wrote in college. It helped me put things in order. I understood the beginning, middle, and end before I committed a word to actual article or essay. For me, outlining became the thinking part of writing. Writing actually seemed easier (note: I did not say easy) after outlining.

The need to meet daily newspaper deadlines weaned me off of outlining to some degree. For longer narrative features, I took to assembling detailed chronologies that, while dispensing with the numerals and letters, did the virtual work of an outline by giving rough shape to the notes I’d amassed from interviews, documents, observations and other sources.

I tried to outline the early chapters of my first novel, Starvation Lake. It didn’t work. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t put things in order; the problem was that I didn’t have much to put in order. I knew the beginning and I had a vague idea about an ending but I had no idea what would happen in between. And I found it nearly impossible to imagine what would happen without actually writing it down in narrative form.

So I ditched any outlining—or “plotting,” if that’s what you prefer to call it--and just kept tapping away on my laptop. The characters behaved. The setting revealed itself. The story unfolded. I wound up with a manuscript that I then turned inside out with hundreds of edits.

Was that rough manuscript a de facto outline?

In an interesting how-I-write piece in my newspaper on Saturday, Philip Roth said he doesn’t map out his books in advance, but rather “feels (his) way going forward. The book educates me as I write.” As with everything Mr. Roth writes, I couldn’t put it any better. (Here’s a link to the piece: http://tinyurl.com/32xtb5v).

In addition to whatever manuscript I'm writing, I keep a separate Word file to which I frequently toggle called, “stuff.” It’s essentially a list of all the balls I’ve tossed into the air as I’ve written the manuscript and a reminder that I need to bring them down at some point, preferably not on my head.

Is my stuff file also an outline? Do I actually have two outlines?

For the record, I did not outline this blog before I wrote it. Does it show? Do you outline? If yes, how? If not, why not?

16 comments:

Dana King said...

I always outline anything too long for me to reliably keep the entire story in my head. I write each scene by the seat of my pants, but I need to know what happens in that scene before I sit down to write it. How it happens, and what else might happen, can be determined on the fly, but I find I'm actually more creative with at least the scaffolding of a story around me as I write.

That being said, the outline is a living document. nothing in it is etched in stone, and it doesn't have to be complete for me to start. Just far enough along for me to have an idea where I'm going.

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