Beautiful Confusion: Outlines and Other Processes

Often people ask me how extensive my outlines are for stories or novels I write. It’s at this moment that I look at them with a blank look, my best Lebowski impression when he’s seated at the desk of the Malibu Police Chief, and ask, “Outline?”

The truth is I am more of the organic type when it comes to creating fiction. In the past I have tried to outline a novel from beginning to end. It felt too…constricting? I blame Gilbert Sorrentino and his novel Mulligan Stew. I read that book years ago (and no I make no claim to have “gotten it”…much the same way with other writers like Pynchon, Cortazar and others). Anyway, I think that’s what planted the seed in me where I let my characters take me on the journey. At least I think that’s what happens. Or maybe it’s some subconscious reaction to being on guided tours when I was a boy.

It helps to know how my story will begin and how it will end. Actually, no. That’s not true. I often don’t know how things will end. I guess that’s the beauty of it. Or the confusion of it. Or maybe the confusing beauty of it? Beautiful confusion? Whatever the case, it works for me.

I have done the journeyman legwork, reading Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces along with a small hill of quality books on fiction writing. I have read good fiction, bad fiction, trashy fiction, you name it. I am a firm believer in learning from it all; either to know what works or what doesn’t. More importantly, I am still learning. Along the way I have written some pretty horrible stories, and some gems I am proud of.

Other writers may be different. Other writers may, right now, have sticky pad sheets or index cards of all shapes, sizes and colors pasted to their walls; or if they are more tech savvy perhaps they use a spreadsheet program or one of those fancy expensive outline programs. None of this is bad. There is really no right or wrong. Writing is a process of discovery. If it was anything else, like brain surgery or plumbing, I would have given up years ago.

The other thing I do is write first drafts in longhand. Call me a dinosaur, but that’s how my mind works. I do jot notes down from time to time, but mostly I like to let it stew a bit before I even put something down on paper.

I would like to hear from other writers. What’s your take? To outline or not to outline? And if you do outline how extensive is it? Or if you’re more like me what’s your process?

Leave a comment. Thanks.

%d bloggers like this: