Fiction: Outlines

Outlines can be dicey, to say the least. Here’s my first fear: if I write out an entire outline for a story, will I feel forced to stick with it, even though the narrative might be going another way? Because, if things are really grooving, and you’re in the zone for weeks at a time, that novel just might come alive, and when it does, it’ll take off like a kid in the candy section of Ralph’s or me at the dispensary. You realize that you’re not in complete control of the story. Actually, you always are; but when we hand ourselves over to our subconscious, that place where we dream—that is, when you rouse that dream world in the waking hours of your writing time—it might feel like you’ve lost your grip on the tale. Good. If this happens, and you say, “Hold on a second, we’ve stepped off the outline,” and force it back into the structure of a laid-out plan, you just might choke the poor thing to death.

But outlines can be very beneficial. According to my notes, I drew out part of the plot for Cojones (what was, in the beginning, called “My Uncle’s Balls”). But it’s not a detailed outline, just some broad strokes of ideas and images that helped pave the way. Then, in the middle of it, I wrote that note, “Start writing.” I still worked on the novel’s structural plan, but soon started hitting the keys.Journal Cojones 6 start writing

Throughout the book, I would write new outlines to get me through the next few passes of the story. I didn’t write out a complete plot, from the beginning to the end, but used the “scaffolding” to piece the story together along the way.

This works for me. But you might be more of an orderly person, one who works better with a more specific outline laid out before writing the first chapter. That’s fine. We each find our own little tricks of the trade, ones that make sense perhaps only to us. Use whatever tool you’ve got. I just suggest that, while outlining, keep in mind that the story might turn another direction. This is not to say you must abandon the plan; you’ve just got one more thing to negotiate—do I let my kid run crazy in the candy section? Do I reprimand him for being such a little shit in the grocery store? Do I whip him with the outline, or is the outline more like the curve of a bow that bends but doesn’t break, and, in doing so, slingshots the arrow into the reader’s mind?

Negotiations. You’ll be doing them all the time. From the overall arc of the story, to the DNA of syntax, word choice, dialogue, every morning is a wondrous love-battle with the psyche. Writing a novel is hard, the hardest thing I’ve done, with a lot of failures along the way–unpublished manuscripts. But they were, as Auden says, important failures. From them, I learned something about writing, and myself. That’s a good thing.

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