Writing by the Outline


I’m thinking of one of my many friends who’d like to be a career writer.  This person is particularly serious about his work.  And he’s talented too.  Sometimes, he’s got this fascinating, original voice that makes me envious as heck.  I admire him a lot.  Here’s where his story gets frustrated: he never completes anything.  He’s written a few unpublished short stories but, so far, all his book-length projects burn out and blow away.  And I think I might know why.

I’ve got another friend who’s also working at making writing into a career.  Last year, one of her novella projects was taken on and released as an ebook by a digital publishing company.  Her enviable strength is story-telling and her work has strong commercial appeal – vampires, paranormal romance, girls with superpowers.  Years and years before there was EL James, this writer’s greatest success was writing PG-rated fan-fiction based on anime series.

Before she told me about it, I didn’t even realize such a market existed.

What surprised me most about her writing projects weren’t all the Japanese names in them but the way the stories are released.  Most of my friend’s books – which typically finish at a whopping 100,000 words — are released online, one chapter at a time, every Thursday.  They’re like old-fashioned serials.  She’s the Charles Dickens of anime fan-fiction.  When she starts writing, she has a general idea of where the story needs to go and how it will get there but she still sits down at her computer each week willing to surprise herself.

Here’s how my burn-out writer friend differs most from my serial-writer friend: outlining.  While the serial writer is free-wheeling, taking her story one week at a time, Mr. Burn-out is outlining.  When he finally cracks open his computer to write his books, he’s already tacked down every element of the story like it’s an entomological display – an array of dead, labeled specimens pinned to a blank field.  He outlines plots and characters until it’s hard for me to imagine how there could be anything left in them to surprise him.

By the time he’s ready to turn his voice and the rest of his talent on his outline, there’s nothing else to discover in his story.  Frankly, I think it might bore him.  Or maybe it’s something more complicated – like the perfect, linear vision in the outline starts to seem too sublime to actually approach.  Maybe it triggers something like an anxiety reaction and paralyzes all that talent of his.

I’ve talked to him about it, tried to get him to write with more of an open-mind.  But he says he enjoys writing the outlines.  When I suggest the outlines might be part of what keeps him from ever finishing a project, he’s unconvinced – for now.

I don’t get it but I’m trying to understand.  Yes, I hate outlines.  Sometimes, when a writing project is getting long and disordered, I’ll grudgingly make notes about plot points on index cards, spread the cards out of my bed, and move them around until I can see how the structure of the story needs to be strengthened.  But that’s the extent of my outlining.  For me, an outline is like punishment for falling into disorganized writing.  It’s remedial and necessary sometimes but it’s not a large or pleasant part of the process.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’d be a better writer if I took the advice of my kids’ elementary school language arts teachers and drew a good “thought-web” every now and then.  But until someone else makes me do it, I’ll just keep typing.