30 April 2013

Journaling and Outlining

This column continues threads from (read "leans heavily on") two recent posts, one by Brian Thornton on journal keeping and one by John Floyd on outlining. I'm both a journal keeper and an outliner, and I don't know which is more important to my writing. Prior to reading the aforementioned posts, I probably would have said that outlining was a defining characteristic of my approach to mystery writing, while journaling was merely a secondary or even incidental one, like my preference for writing in longhand. (It was good enough for Cervantes.) After all, you can divide a group of writers into warring camps--or at least into debating teams--by mentioning outlining. Journal keeping doesn't provoke that kind of response. But since considering Brian and John's posts together, I've come to see how fundamental journaling is to my work habits, in part because it makes my outlining possible.

As as aside, I have to say that, like John, I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the nuts and bolts of writing. I don't even mind the rare occasions when a writer bangs the podium and insists that there's only one right way to do something. When I hear "this is the way," I always mentally translate it into "this is what works for me." And when I speak to a group of aspiring writers, I always tell them to make the same mental translation if I should pound the podium, though that would be wildly out of character.

As an aside to the last aside, it fascinates me that writers seem to outline or not because of some inherent predisposition. You may be able to influence a few fence sitters, but most writers are firmly in one or the other pasture. Great writers reside on both sides of the fence. My favorite examples are two Southern novelists who happened to be friends, Shelby Foote (outliner) and Walker Percy (non-outliner), and two mystery writers who happen to be friends, Peter Lovesey (outliner) and Michael Z. Lewin (non-outliner). Their photos are reproduced here in the order named. You may notice that the outliners (on the left) appear less stressed and more serene in general. (I refuse to comment on the respective hairlines of the two pairs, but I can't stop you from drawing your own conclusions.)

I start my writing day with my journal, a spiral bound notebook. If I'm at work on a book or a short story, I record my progress from the day before (pat myself on the back) and write about the new day's challenges. From there, if I'm lucky, I move right from the notebook to my latest yellow legal pad and start the actual writing. This priming of the pump or stretching of the writing muscles is one of the things I value most about keeping a journal. It's a non-threatening way to get the pencil moving, a defense against the writer's-block-inducing pressure of writing for posterity right out of bed.

My journal is a writer's block defense in another way, of course. It's a storehouse for book and story ideas. If I'm not writing a book or a story, my journal entry will probably be about a new idea or a reconsideration of an old one. Some ideas demand to be written fairly quickly. Others are improved by "blue skying," a term I picked up from software designers back when I was a technical writer. For me, blue skying is simply kicking an idea around, asking questions like "What if X happens?" or "What would Y do then?" until the story starts to take shape. Brian mentioned that he sometimes writes himself into a corner when he's working on a story. That sometimes happens to me in the idea development process, and this is also when I back out of the corner, if I can. (If I can't, it's on to the next idea and no hard feelings.)

At this point, if the idea is for a short story, I'll probably just write a first draft. For a book idea, I'll next write a step outline, also in my journal. It's just one line for each major event (usually a chapter) of the novel-to-be. This process will be interrupted by more blue skying as I encounter breaks in my plot chain that require new links. Say I'm writing a book for Owen Keane, my ex-seminarian amateur sleuth. My questions to myself will now be "What does Owen believe to be true at this moment?" and "Believing that, what would he do?"

Next, I turn to the legal pad and write an outline--by which I mean a plot summary--cribbing from the plot notes and character sketches in my journal. My mystery novels average around 75,000 words. My plot summary for a book that length will run around 6,000 words. When it's time to write the book, I place the outline in the three-ring binder that will hold my daily pages. Now the outline is not only a prompt to my memory; it's also yet another anti-writer's-block device. I never have to figure out what Keane is going to do on a given day, though I may still have to work out exactly how he'll do it. For example, the outline may only tell me that Owen has to interview the manager of an apartment complex to find out what happens to the belongings of a tenant who skips out (and maybe wheedle access to those belongings). On the day I write that scene, I still have to come up with an interesting setting, cast the part of the manager, and write some deathless repartee. (And make lunch.)

To me, this process answers one of the common criticisms of outlining, which is that it's somehow less creative than simply following one's muse. That might be true if I were getting my outlines from Plots "R" Us or producing them using a complicated formula and a calculator. In reality, I acquire an outline by--gasp--following my muse. I'm just recording a high level or macro view of that muse's traipsing around. In fact, I see outlining as being creative of the macro level and writing the book as being creative on the micro level. But I'm always being creative. (Except when I'm making lunch. If it's turkey on rye on Monday, it's turkey on rye every day that week.)

A second criticism of outlining--one that John mentioned in his post--is harder to answer. It's the fear some non-outliners have that they will lose interest in a story if they know how it ends. Such a writer is motivated by the suspense of not knowing. For a certain type of storyteller, though (and perhaps the Irish are overrepresented in this group), there is something compelling about knowing the story you're telling, knowing where every shock and laugh is, knowing that the payoff is worth the effort of the telling. Think back to some favorite story you love to tell (the one that makes your children or grandchildren elbow each other and roll their eyes or, perhaps, lean forward in anticipation). Writing from a solid outline gives the same kind of satisfaction.

Where I think the chase-the-muse writers may have a true advantage is in the all-important matter of pacing. But that's a subject for another post.


  1. The suspense of not knowing? As i said before, for me not knowing means not writing. I need to know before i start.

    After reading Brian's suggestion i am tryong journaling. Hasnt improved my life in a week , but i will soldier on.

  2. Non-outliner (what I call an into-the-mist writer) checking in: it's not fear of losing interest for me, it's having had the experience of losing interest--also of preplanned secondary characters remaining wooden (like early Pinocchio), whereas those I write as I go spring into life. The first draft is the thing I'm most afraid I won't be able to complete, so that's where my most spontaneous creative energy has to go.

    BTW, I do understand about pouring creativity into an outline: I do it every time I prepare to make a presentation (whether it's on the writer's craft, some aspect of therapy or mental health, or any other topic). Once the outline is done, I'm ready, and can get up there and talk for however long I'm given, whether it's a 15-minute slot at a conference or a 15-week academic course.

  3. I am a non-outliner, but it isn't the fear of losing interest if I know how a story is going to end. I often know that before I start writing. If I stop to analyze why I don't outline, I have to conclude that is goes against my somewhat disorganized lifestyle. Also, I want to be surprised by my character's acts and thoughts, and I can't do this with an outline. Don't ask me why; I don't know. But more often than not the story I am writing ends up being another story altogether from the one I started out to write--hopefully a better one.

    Does any of this make sense?

  4. Herschel, It absolutely makes sense. On the subject of being organized or disorganized, I've often thought that being able to write a mystery at novel length without an outline must require a lot of mental organization (also a good memory).

  5. Great post, Terence, and although I appreciate the credit that comes with being cited as an "influence" for your post, I hardly think you stole anything from my post on journaling. I gotta tell ya, I don't outline my short stories, I just write them. The book-length nonfiction I've published required extensive work to make sure it was organized correctly.

    Now that I'm tackling the final run (after a couple of false starts) of an historical novel, I can't imagine not having some sort of blueprint from which to work. An organizational schema, if the word "outline" throws you, well and good. But I wrote my first "mistake" novel years ago (before I published any of my nonfiction work) and didn't outline. Three drafts running down from 117,000 words to 101,000 and years of work on it while doing other things later, I realized I need some sort of organization.

    I've been experimenting with various forms, lengths and types of outlines, with some success and some associated challenges. Now I'm absolutely going to steal every aspect of your program that will work for me (I already write parts of my stuff longhand, but that's because I am never without my Moleskine and a good pen, and you never know where the germ of an idea will take you...).

    So thanks!


  6. Terence, I am an outliner, and that is an understatement. I like your journaling, but do so by means of dozens of sticky notes (real ones) written in my car, at my desk, in my bed, kitchen, wherever. They pile up and can be sorted into groups for different stories. I start every short or long fiction by opening a word file that I have already arranged with a very detailed outline. Five sections (book) or five acts (short). These have suggestive general titles: 1. Person, Place, Problem, 2. First Try, etc. If it's a short story, then the scenes just flow into the five spaces provided. If a novel, then it's subdivided again into five chapters per section. I usually start by typing a paragraph that tells what the chapter or scene is about. That yields five paragraphs per short story and twenty five paragraphs per novel. From there I flesh out the short directly, but the novel gets subdivided into three scenes per chapter for a total of seventy-five scenes. At some point in the fleshing out process, I stop and subtitle scenes according to the twelve-point Joseph Campbell hero's quest scheme of Chris Vogler. Now, I'll bet you think this is all needlessly constraining. However, through the wonder of cut, paste and delete, I find that my stories just seem to fly together without too much head-scratching. And they always seem to cover all necessary dramatic, character arc, and plot-twist requirements.


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