29 August 2015
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
I have read with great interest the recent SleuthSayers columns by Melissa, Jan, and others on the subject of outlining. It's a fascinating topic, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to offer a few more views.
First, let me--like Donald Trump--clearly state my position. I always outline my fiction. Having said that, I should point out that I don't usually outline it on paper. I write mostly short stories, so I outline them mentally. But believe me, the result is still an outline, and I depend on that pre-determined structure to guide me through the writing of the story.
I should mention several other things as well. The first is, I don't choose to outline rather than fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. For me, it's not a choice. I outline because I have to--I couldn't do it any other way. Well, I suppose I could, but if I did, it would take me much longer because I'd go down all kinds of wrong paths and have to constantly retrace my steps and start over again. Life's too short for that.
Another thing. Although I always have an outline in my mind when I begin writing (in fact I never write a word until I'm pretty sure I know where the story's going), I often wind up changing the outline during the writing process. Sometimes I think of a better ending, or an additional character or two, or a reversal in the middle that adds something to the plot, etc. So my outline, unlike my head, isn't rock-hard. But I do have to have a map spread out on the dashboard before I start my trip.
And yes, I do plan things all the way to the end. I don't necessarily plot backwards from the end, as I've heard some folks do, but I have to know the conclusion before I begin. Again, it might change during the course of the journey--I might travel a little farther than I'd thought I would, or make detours, or stop a little sooner than planned--but I feel that knowing that destination before I start out helps keep me on course throughout the story.
Unlike my friend Janice Law--who is a wonderful writer, by the way--it doesn't bore me to "know" ahead of time what I'll be writing about. I've also never felt that that prior knowledge stifles my creativity. Instead, it gives me a feeling of security, an assurance that I won't stray too far off the path. Besides, the process of pre-plotting is probably (can you say "alliteration"?) the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, for me. I love coming up with the storyline. Since it's done in my head and not on paper, I don't go into painful detail with this mental preview, but I do spend a lot of time putting it together, and--again--when it's done, the framework is there for me to build on.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying outlining is the only way to go, or that you should do it. Or even try to do it. In fact, I agree with another comment Janice made recently, in a different post: she said every writer must do whatever works best for him or her. We're all different. I think the need to outline or not is already wired into our brains, and that circuitry would be difficult--maybe impossible--to change. Some of us are always early to appointments and some are always late; some are night-owls, some are early risers; some of us squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end and some don't, or prefer the toilet paper hanging forward over the roll instead of backward, and so forth. Same thing applies here. You're an outline person or you're not (author James Scott Bell says you're either an OP or a No-OP). I've even heard that engineers, programmers, accountants, etc., are more likely than "ordinary" people to be OPs. Maybe that's my excuse.
Truth be told, I respect and envy those writers who don't find it necessary to plan things out beforehand, who just sit down and start typing away with no idea where things are going from there. How convenient that must be. I also envy their confidence, that things will turn out well. That ain't me. If I did that, I'm fairly confident things would not turn out well. And I confess that I find myself a little suspicious of famous writers who insist in interviews that they never, ever outline their fiction in any way or to any degree. My response would be that veteran writers have been through the process so many times that indeed they probably don't need a blueprint anymore in order to build the house. The plan is probably in their heads whether they realize it or not.
The same old song-and-dance
You know what I'm going to ask. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you ever go halfway, and plan only the beginning, or a few plot points, and then free-wheel the rest? Have you ever tried or seen the need to change your approach? If you're a No-OP, do you ever find yourself taking the wrong path, maybe to a blind alley? If you're an OP, is your outline on paper or just in your mind?
Either way, I wish you good writing and successful narratives.
And don't touch my toothpaste tube!
NOTE: My friend Art Taylor, who I'm pleased to announce will be permanently joining us at SleuthSayers in October, will be guest-posting in my slot on Saturday, September 5. I don't know if he's an outliner or not, but he's a fantastic writer. Be sure to stop in for his column next week.