Sunday, September 2, 2012

Outliners, Outliers and Hitting Brick Walls

So I'm writing the first draft of this amazing story. (Amazing to me, anyway.)  I have wonderful characters, an interesting setting, and great conflict.  Suddenly, as I'm headed to the finish line, I slam into a brick wall going a hundred miles per hour and everything stops.  47,000 words, flowing like smooth honey on a hot summer day, and  I suddenly I've got ice cubes in the middle of a Canadian blizzard. 
Photo by Dan Holm

And I have no idea how to proceed.

A fellow writer once asked me: "how can you even start writing anything until you know how it's going to end?"  But, you know, that's how I roll.  I'm an intuitive writer.  Outlines are an anathema to me.  I shun them as I would a chunk of rotten pineapple at an Hawaiian luau.  When I write, I usually give the idea a little forethought, take a few notes, then plunge right in.  Even though I might end up running myself smack dab off a cliff. 

I can't help it.  It's the way my brain works. I've tried to change.  But when I sit down and make myself try to outline, I come up dry and unsatisfied.  I need to feel the story, be in the moment.  I like to watch the scene play out in my head, hear the characters talk and see them do things I never imagined they were capable of. 

It's my theory that there are two types of writers in the world--the Outliners and the Outliers.  The left-brained Outliners are the ones with the clean desks.  Their pencils are always sharpened and their pen holders are always filled with working pens.  They plan, they plot--they construct character studies until they know what side of the bed each character likes to sleep on and who they voted for in the 1976 election.

Outliers like me, on the other hand, are right-brained and kind of loosey-goosey. Our desks are piled with magazines and old letters and parking tickets we forgot to pay. We make it up as we go along.  We feel our way through a story, groping for plot twists, grasping for meaning.  And basically flail around and flounder until we find something that makes sense. 

Which of these two methods is better?  Well, Outliners are more efficient, I'll give them that. They get through their stories with far fewer dead-ends, much less beating of the chest, and pulling out of the hair. But don't ever let anyone tell you this is the only way to write.  There is no one way to write, and anyone who tells you there is, is blowing smoke up your... chimney.  In reality, every writer has to decide for him or herself what works.  It all depends on what is suited to your own particular flavor of brain.

Now, back to my amazing novel, which I left hanging precariously in story limbo:  I had a breakthrough.  Or at least I've found a useful tool, a writer's-helper, to unclog my stopped up story-pipes.  I followed the recommendations of Talia Vance in her wonderful presentation, The Revsion Checklist.

Yes, Taila's method includes writing an outline, but only after you write the first draft.  It's a way to graphically lay out the story so you can organize your thoughts and see the big picture in front of you. 

Using this method, I came up with a plot twist I hadn't thought of before. It's a small step toward crafting the second half of the book, but at least it's a start.  Check out Taila's great article for more advise on revising and completing your own manuscript "from big picture to small details."

So what do you think?  When you write, are you a plotter and a down-to-the-last-detail planner?  Or do you fly by the seat of your pants?


  1. Hi, Mary! Popping by from GUTGAA. Twins? Fun now that they're grown. Probably less so when they cried to be fed at the same time. :-) Looking forward to learning more about you and your writing.

  2. Hi Dawn! Yes, twins. The thing about twins is that they always outnumber you. They both got married within the last year. As usual, they have to everything at the same time. : ) Very nice to meet you. I'll pop over and check out your blog.