To Outline or Not to Outline: A Question Only You Can Answer

September 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, as I fretted over my Dark Crystal submission (which I still haven’t started), one commenter authoritatively told me I must write an outline for it. I did, and I am, because it’s such unfamiliar territory for me that I just feel a lot safer going in with a map. But that’s not always the decision I make.

Currently, I’m reading APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which recommends outlines and disses authors who don’t use them handily in one tidbit of advice:

“Many authors find an outline too constricting, but an outline sets me free. If you can’t write an outline, perhaps your thoughts are insufficiently organized.”

I had to bristle at this. It’s one thing to offer advice to would-be writers, quite another to imply that they are lacking if they do not follow your advice. The March/April issue of Writer’s Digest featured a wonderful article on “organic writing”; that is, writing without an outline, seeing where the story might take you. I used to be an outliner, but then I met NaNoWriMo, and I discovered the joy of flying by the seat of my pants. That’s when I learned I could be an organic writer, too, and now I often write without an outline. The advantage is a heightened sense of discovery; the disadvantage is the potential to panic if you don’t know what’s next, which can perhaps lead to an increased risk of writer’s block (at least, it does for me.)

A friend in my writer’s group has recently begun writing his short stories without an outline. There is no difference in quality between those that were written with or without outlines; if anything, the ones written without outlines are better, because he continues to develop his skill as a writer.

I once read something about Stephen King in which he said he no longer used outlines, that he could “feel” when the story was getting off-track and self-correct it. I find that writing without an outline has developed this sixth sense in me as well. If you think of an outline as a map, it makes a lot of sense to use it in unfamiliar territory to keep you from getting totally tangled in your jumble of prose. But after you’ve been writing for years, especially in a particular genre, you probably will get through the thicket just fine without a map to guide you. Your intuition will tell you when you’re going down the right path, and when you aren’t. And if it doesn’t? Revision is your friend.

I’m currently working on a novel-writing webinar for girls that I will offer in partnership with New Moon Girl Media. I plan to start with the idea that there are two types of writers: “planners” and “pantsers” — those who plan in advance of writing, and those who get by “by the seat of their pants.” Both types can and do win publication, popularity, and acclaim. I recommend trying both methods to see which you prefer, and more importantly, to get a sense for which approach is appropriate for each particular work. And if you ditch the outline? It doesn’t mean your thoughts are too “disorganized” to make a good book — only that you’re brave enough to tackle your adventure without a map.


Where to Begin?

September 11, 2013

Recently, a writer friend of mine told me that the opening line for one of my stories wasn’t really working for her. Like most negative feedback, it wasn’t easy to hear–but it will ultimately lead to a better story. Luckily, I wasn’t particularly attached to that opening line–it had already been changed several times:

  1. Shortly after I wrote my initial opening for the story, I knew it was a typical “throat-clearing” opener, in which I stalled while I figured out where I was really going to begin. Only my writer’s group ever saw that opening. That particular draft had a question next to the place I would actually open the story that said, “Start story here?” They agreed that I should.
  2. The next opening line stayed around for quite a while–perhaps a year? But I got feedback that it sounded too “modern” and gave the wrong impression of the character’s “voice.”
  3. The third incarnation of the opening line (which apparently wasn’t a charm ;)) no longer sounded modern, but perhaps too archaic, and was a little confusing to boot.

There’s always this old fall-back …

At first, I felt as though I was out of options (that’s probably actually never true in writing). And I felt a little sad that the opening line was causing me so much trouble, because opening lines used to come so naturally to me. In fact, they used to be the first glimpse of a story I would get. That hasn’t been my experience for several years … I think because I’ve tinkered with so many openings professionally, and read so much about the supreme importance of opening lines, that I no longer trust my first instinct for them. And now it seems that instinct has deserted me altogether.

This is a problem, since not having an opening line makes, well, opening a story daunting. I started with a not-so-great opening line for my Rapunzel novel because November had arrived, whether I liked it or not. In revisions, I gave it a better opening line. Now, I’m poised to begin my Dark Crystal novel, but I’m hung up on the opening line again, although my mind is swirling with images for the story itself that continue to come clearer and clearer to me. But without an opening line, I feel as if they’re all locked behind a gate I can’t open.

I know that’s not true. I can climb over the gate. I can bust it open. It may be messy, but at least I’ll be inside, and I can come back and fix it later.

My friend also offered some insight that makes me feel less daunted about the whole opening line conundrum, and which I think is good advice for any writer to follow, especially those who fill their brains with too much writing advice:

“Your opening … might be a victim of overthinking. It might be a problem of you trying to figure out what’s ‘right’ in writing, and not what’s right for your story. I think you need to figure out what the story needs, and not what the writing advice columnists need. Maybe the reason that opening lines had always come naturally to you is because that was before you spoiled your brain with too much writing advice.”

Indeed. Back when openings came easier to me, I was young enough that I felt I had plenty of “time” to become a successful writer. I wanted that, of course, but I didn’t feel like a failure for not having it yet. All I wanted to do was to tell that story, so I never put locks on any of the gates.

After letting it percolate for a bit, I do think I’ve arrived at a better opening for the story my friend read, and the story will be better for it. And I’ll come up with an opening for my Dark Crystal novel, too. I just have to be OK with accepting that it might not happen at the beginning.

Writing and the Immeasurable Payout

September 3, 2013

Recently, I subscribed to Holly Lisle’s e-newsletter on a recommendation from Publishing E-books for Dummies, which I’m reading as part of my Rumpled ebook project. Although my inbox is full with newsletters and updates that I often don’t have time to read, I’m glad I took a look at Holly’s post about whether writing is worth the price. I recommend that not just writers, but anyone who wonders about the “price” of their dreams, take a look.

As a freelancer who juggles work for a variety of clients, as well as a part-time job with fluctuating hours, I often find myself weighing costs and benefits in my head before I accept any project, knowing that to do so means I may have to give up others. Questions include …

  1. How long will the work take me, and how much does the project pay? In other words, what will be my approximate “per hour” rate?
  2. How enjoyable is the work? Or, conversely, how boring, difficult, or frustrating is it?
  3. How reliable is this client at paying on time, or how long will I have to wait to get paid?
  4. If the pay-rate is low, are there other benefits — such as building up my portfolio, reaching a certain audience, or bringing me closer to something I want?

The best projects, of course, are the ones that are enjoyable and that pay well. But I will sometimes sacrifice higher pay for work that I find more enjoyable. Ultimately, though, my goal as a freelance writer is to get higher pay for fewer hours of work … so that more of my time is freed up for my own writing. In fact, being able to make my own writing a priority was largely the impetus that pushed me to transition from work as a full-time staff person to a freelancer. The reality of making money as a freelancer means that I don’t have significantly more time to write than I did when I worked for a company full time; what I do have is greater flexibility, which means I can work my other commitments around my writing. And that is worth a lot.

Still, I learned long ago that I cannot apply this cost/benefit model to my writing. Doing so would utterly depress me. Ultimately, I want to publish a novel with a major publishing house — that’s my most desired tangible outcome of the investment I make in writing. But even if that happened, there’s no way that the advance would ever compensate for the years that I put into getting me to that point. If it takes approximately 10,000 hours to attain true mastery, and you secure a $10,000 advance (a fairly generous sum, and unlikely from small presses), that translates into $1 per hour for your work. As a freelancer, I won’t work for those rates, and neither should anyone else.

But I’m not writing this post as a freelancer. I’m not writing my novels or my journal entries as a freelancer, either. I’m writing them for something else, something that is not easily quantified, and that has meaning even if they never bring any money in. I don’t write with hopes of payment and recognition; but I think these things would be mighty nice perks, since I’m going to be writing anyway.

And I am going to be writing anyway. I appreciate a “break” from writing between big projects, but after a month or so I start to feel “off” without a writing project threading through my life. I still get excited for new ideas and for old ones; I still feel as though there may never be enough time in the world for me to do all the writing I want to do, to tell all the stories I want to tell. This both daunts me and inspires me. I expect that my writing will take different forms throughout my life, but I know that to stop writing would be to lose a part of myself — perhaps even a crucial one, without which the other parts of myself might crumble apart. And who could put a price on that?

The Only Cure for Writer’s Block? Writing.

August 26, 2013

When I teach writing, I always tell people that the only cure for writer’s block is writing.

Now it’s time for me to buck up and follow my own advice.

I’ve read all the Dark Crystal books I can get my hands on, cover-to-cover, poring over the pictures and taking notes. I have enough bare bones to begin writing my contest entry. There’s no more excuse now for putting it off. Except that I’m intimidated.

The world of the Dark Crystal is lush and complex and ancient and, above all, visually stunning. A world meant for the eyes to devour. And capturing that same sense of awe and beauty in writing will be difficult, so difficult that the task of transforming a blank computer screen into something similar seems almost impossible.

But starting a new project always feels impossible. And by not writing, I’m not using the part of my brain that knows how to make those connections, that can break through writer’s block. There are things that can happen in your mind when you write that just won’t happen when you’re just thinking. That’s why writing through writer’s block works. It gets your mind engaged in the right way again, and even if you have to write pages of crap, usually in the midst of it there’s an “aha!” moment that you never would have uncovered if you just tried to solve the issue while washing dishes or walking the dog, staying in your mind, not using the tools that you will need to break through this wall. You can’t nail a board back onto the deck by just thinking about a hammer, and you can’t break through writer’s block by just thinking about it, either.

Mondays are my blogging days, which give me a reprieve. And tomorrow I blog for Young Adult Catholics. But on Wednesday morning, my task is clear: I will be writing my outline for the Dark Crystal’s Authorquest. Here’s hoping that will help my story “crystalize” enough to write those crucial 10,000 words.

Don’t Write Until You’re Excited?

September 17, 2012

The September 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest features an interview with Chris Cleave, author of the best-selling Little Bee. When asked for his advice to writers, he says this:

“Make sure you’re excited about your work. When you research a story, it should feel like life and death. And when you come to writing it, it should feel like, It will be devastating for me if I don’t make this story as exciting as I know it can be. You should get up every day and think, If I’m not super excited about the 2,000 words I’m going to do today, how can I make it so I am super excited? It should never feel like a chore. If it ever gets boring, the reader can tell. You need to put the pen down and change something, and not come back to the desk until you’re excited about the line or chapter you’re about to write.”

I always read Writer’s Digest with a pen in hand, and in the margins next to this paragraph, I drew a big question mark. I think I disagree with Chris on this one. While I think it’s definitely a good idea to try to psych yourself up and to get excited about what you’re going to write, and to examine your piece closely when it does start to bore you, I don’t think it’s safe to leave the work alone until you are excited about it. Nor do I think the reader can necessarily tell where your enthusiasm has waned. I’ve often had the rude awakening of reading back over work I wrote full of excitement and inspiration, only to find that it’s no better (and is sometimes even worse) than scenes I’ve written where each word felt like it had to be wrenched out of some quicksand pit in my mind to be put on the page.

It’s fairly common for writers to experience a “lull” mid-story, when the initial excitement has worn off and the momentum of the end being in sight hasn’t begun. One of the biggest challenges facing new writers is getting past this and finishing their stories. Many writers who lose their “excitement” over a work in progress end up starting something new that feels more exciting; until that one becomes boring, at which point there’s another new beginning; until soon you have file drawers full of half-finished manuscripts with none of them anywhere close to being ready to see the light of day.

So my modification of Chris’s advice would be this: If you’re not excited, see whether you can do something to get excited (brainstorm ideas in your planning notebook, take a walk to mull over your story, read over a scene that you’re really proud of, journal about what made you want to write this story in the first place). But if you can’t get excited, write anyway. The last thing we writers need is one more excuse to abandon our craft.

Alarm Clocks and True Presence

August 13, 2012

Recently, I finished Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me: Monks, a Marriage, and A Writer’s Life. In it, she talks briefly about the common excuse people give about not having “time” to write. She dismisses this, claiming that the true artists arrange their life in such a way that they make time for their craft. I have to agree with her, as I think about my younger sister, who always seems to be juggling more than one job, who never gets enough sleep, and who nonetheless manages to prolifically produce art in her garage. It also reminded me of a post I read on She Writes about how beneficial using an egg timer can be in finding/making time to write.

Joanne argues her case well; in particular, I like what she says about imagining that the timer is her “boss” who might stop by any time to make sure she’s working. I’ve found alarm clocks and timers to be incredibly beneficial to my writing, especially during times when quantity is more important than quality (NaNoWriMo, when I’m on the home stretch of a first draft and just want to wrap the darn thing up already). There’s something about the timer that takes the pressure off. I make it about time rather than about talent; I tell myself, “All I have to do is make it to the ding of that timer.” I don’t have to write 1,000 words. I don’t have to write a complete scene. But that time is going to pass no matter what, and even when writing is excruciating, it’s more interesting than staring at a blank screen or out the window for an hour. And what often begins feeling like drudgery quickly becomes so immersive that I jump with surprise when the timer does go off and pulls me back into the world.

There’s one thing Joanne doesn’t cover in her post that, for me, is one of the biggest advantages of using timers and alarm clocks for writing. And that’s that it allows me to be fully present. We live in such an overscheduled world that I think we’re in a constant state of distraction, always wondering in the backs of our minds what time it is; checking the clock can become both a mode of procrastination and an obsession. When I have a timer running, I know someone else is keeping track of that time. I know that when an allotted amount of time has passed, the device will notify me. So time becomes of no concern, and that’s incredibly liberating.

That’s why I use alarm clocks not just for writing, but for almost everything. I set them for when I should be heading out after lunch with a friend, so that I can spend all my time with that friend listening to her and not glancing at my watch. I set them when I’m in danger of squandering a whole afternoon digging through a used book shop. I set them when I’m rewarding myself with half an hour of reading time.

We all get the same amount of hours in the day. But I think we can get more done if we let go of the responsibility of keeping track of every minute of them.

Write Like It’s Work

July 9, 2012

I’ve often heard the advice that you need to treat your writing like a “real job” even before you’re published. That means you show up on time. You don’t skip days. You prioritize it over TV, or doing the dishes, or playing with the cat. To take it a step further, maybe you don’t let yourself “off the hook” with anything less than what you’d feel comfortable telling a boss. “Sorry, I can’t come into work today because my dishes are dirty,” or “I’m not going to make it — my cat is being SO cute right now,” isn’t going to cut it.

I’ve taken this advice to heart for a good part of my writing life, which means I do try to work on my writing every day (but I allow my schedule to be flexible), and I take two days off a week (my boss isn’t a slavedriver), and I give myself a break when I’m sick, or vacationing, or grieving (although, in the latter case, writing might be the best thing to do.) But lately, I haven’t been just treating my writing “like” it’s work. It really has been work — with real deadlines, real audiences, real editors, real publications.

I feel as though I haven’t “written” in a while, but what that really means is that I haven’t worked on my “personal writing” (writing without a waiting audience) as much lately as I used to. I have this guilt monkey in my mind who nags, saying, You haven’t worked on your novella since Thursday! Stop slacking!

And I have to tell that monkey, I’m not slacking. I’m just reversing my focus.

For most of my writing life, I’ve been making resolutions that this year I’ll redirect all that energy I usually put into writing new stories into writing for a real audience. And yet, again and again I couldn’t resist the shininess of a new story, and I’d welcome it as a distraction from the much scarier task of marketing myself. At last, I’m finally making good on that resolution, and things are happening because of it. I’ve learned that the key is to have concrete, measurable goals, like:

  • a goal to start writing more for a real audience. I made this goal about five years ago, and as part of it, I made an effort to take opportunities for writing that might be a good fit for me, even if I wasn’t totally sure what those opportunities would entail. That’s how I ended up writing for, and eventually co-editing, the Young Adult Catholics blog — which, by the way, directly led to my current book project, Hungering and Thirsting for Justice (ACTA Publications). The writing for the blog was and is unpaid — but it’s for a real audience. And for many writers, communication is a far more enticing reward than money.
  • a goal to become published three times in one year — or, barring that, to submit six times in one year. That goal is what led to the publication of my short story, “The Man in the Mirror” in Queer Dimensions, as well as my article, “Kids Keep me Closeted” for the Bi-Women newsletter, and the upcoming publication of my essay, “Where I First Met God” in Unruly Catholic Women Writers Volume II (SUNY PRESS).
  • a goal to submit my young adult novel, Ever This Day, to one publisher/editor, agent, or contest a month. So far, I’ve missed one month–the month I got married. I hope to submit it twice some other month this year to make up for it. Currently, I’ve got it out to the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction; this month, I plan to submit it to the MsLexia award for unpublished women novelists.

Making concrete, measurable goals (I’m going to write five days a week, I’m going to submit six times a year) proved to be so much more successful than the more nebulous ones I used to make (I’m going to focus more on my writing, I’m going to submit my stuff more often.) These days, my writing time has been consumed by lining up reviewers and making final tweaks to Hungering (going to the typesetter as we speak), Unruly (manuscript due mid-September), and writing an article about being bisexual and Catholic for Dignity USA. After all those years of “acting as if” I was a real writer, I’m finally beginning to believe it.