On not knowing how to outline — and the universe

I have never learned how to outline. My favourite part of writing has always been when my characters run away with a story, and besides, Stephen King says he doesn’t believe in outlines, but more to the point, I just never wanted to.  Somehow it just seemed hard, or not fun.

But if the universe does indeed try to tell people things, I’m pretty sure it spent a few days in the middle of May sending me messages that it’s time I finally got around to writing an outline for my work-in-progress.

First, I spent a Wednesday evening in a local pub with a few writing friends, including Lynda Williams (who has created a whole science fiction universe), and she gave me a rousing pep talk on plotting. The very next night I happened to meet a famous author whose works I am crazy about, and I got the chance to ask him some questions. Could he tell me a little about his process? Being a kind and tolerant person, he actually answered me — and outlines were in there, of course. A few days later, there was this Flavorwire post with pictures of famous writers’ handwritten outlines. (The Order of the Phoenix outline was originally posted back in 2010, but the universe was saving it to show it to me now — just waiting for a time when I was willing to listen, I suppose.)

The weird thing is, now that I’ve surrendered to the idea, I’m kind of liking it.

Yesterday I went for a long walk, just thinking about different plot points. What would happen if Person X did Thing Y? Hmm. Would it make sense if Kim did Thing Z? Hmm. Hmm. It was like a jigsaw puzzle — although that is a cliché and I don’t really like jigsaw puzzles — but it was like the part of a puzzle I actually enjoy, where the end is almost in sight, and more and more pieces are fitting into place.

My walk took me to a pub I almost never get to, and I sat down and had a fine locally-crafted beer and kept thinking.

Not a bad day of writing.


This illustration is taken from Wikipedia’s entry on Conflict (narrative)Conflict in narrative comes in many forms. “Man versus man”, such as is depicted here in the battle between King Arthur and Mordred, is particularly common in traditional literature, fairy tales and myths.[1]


P.S.: If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy this short video of Kurt Vonnegut talking (and doodling) about storylines. I wish I could have met this man.


On monkeys and typewriters and Lynda Barry


Lynda Barry, the brilliant writer and artist and cartoonist (her books are now available through Drawn and Quarterly), has also been teaching writing workshops for the past few years. (You can get a little feel for the the workshops through her YouTube videos; see also her “Six Minute Diary” video, and what she has to say about kids and play.*)

One of the things Lynda Barry tells us is that we can all write (and draw). And I know some people will say, “Sure I can, but what I write is total crap.” Or, “I have no ideas.” Or, “Yeah, whatever you say. I’m going to be the writing equivalent of that kid at the back of the choir who opens her mouth without making a sound so she doesn’t wreck it for everyone else.” And Barry knows all about this internal editor, this nasty little voice we carry around that tells us we can’t do whatever it is we want to do. She describes it better than anyone else I’ve ever heard, and workshops like hers are designed to crush that voice. They work, too.

National Novel Writing Month is another way to get past that internal editor — a marathon-length approach. The idea is that if you have to hit a near-impossible word-count every day for 30 straight days, you simply don’t have time to worry about details or perfection. Forget about adverbs and passive voice and the fact that your main character just changed gender or country of origin or whatever. Like the infinite number of monkeys with the infinite number of typewriters, you will get something out of it, somewhere, and your job during NaNo is just to keep typing and let those monkeys do their work.

What surprised me is how much I liked that feeling. There were times when it really pained me to leave cliches on the screen and just keep going, but it was a delicious kind of pain, like tearing your jeans and scraping your leg on a nail as you jump over a fence running away from the authorities when you’re a kid. Or so I hear.

And once things were really moving along, it was easier to leave the garbage where it was in the manuscript and just let the new unspooling words come by themselves. Weird things started to happen in my story, and some of them went nowhere. But some of them got me thinking.

I don’t know why Kim headed down the stairs to the school’s basement, where there was nothing but the boiler room and the janitor’s closet. But once she did, I started to wonder if she might be a ghost. And so did my main character, Joni.

nearsighted monkey

*You also need to read her Tumblr. Here’s a good place to start: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/post/48753650294/keys-to-creativity-cartoonist-lynda-barry-talks. I could go on. She’s my hero.