Some time ago, after a (non-Tamara) friend had bemoaned the impenetrable voodoo futility of being asked to submit an outline before writing, I made a terrible mistake: I remarked to another friend that such an attitude was more self-indulgent than real, because "everyone writes to an outline."
This did not go over at all well. It would seem that not everyone does.
Part of the friction comes from semantics: what's an "outline?" In the high school I attended, academic-track students were required to take "Expository Theme And Research Paper," a course that concerned itself with very rigorous, formal outlines: Unyeilding taskmasters, straightjackets, corsets, traction-- Except like the last three examples, the structure was supposed to be a support, a way of staying on track; the effort of getting this into the unruly minds of teenagers often turned "outline" into a daunting monster, the nemesis of creative expression. And this is the dire thing people think of when you say "outline." It's a very dry sort of writing, taught as a largely mechanical exercise in constructing readable prose no one would much want to read, and it's most likely good discipline to struggle through.
I got a D in that class, by the way, though I think I managed to fast-talk and large-vocabulary my way to a gentlewoman's C at the very last moment.
But an "outline" can be very rough, or very flimsy: needing to write n
-many words about topic X
is, in fact, an outline. It's a darned sketchy one -- but by the time your fingers have typed the lede
, that busy scribbler in the back of your mind has already got a half-dozen notions on how to proceed, at least four of which are tripe. (A good writer knows which four ideas to throw away, and is more worried about discerning the better ones than ensuring section II.A.2, para (a) discusses early shipboard wireless use in Caribbean and para (b) covers the curious relationship between the CIA and banana importers, exactly as planned.)
Lester Dent wrote scads of entertaining, pulpy reading using a fairly "cookie-cutter" plot outline
consisting of four 1500-word sections in each of which Hero Protagonist gets into trouble, struggles with it, gets into some kind of physical conflict, and then there's some kind of twist or surprise. --And each section also advances an over-arching plot arc, related to the minor struggles. Throw in some tips and tricks on generating a villain, a crime and a location, and hey, you're in the pulp business -- if you're as good at the details as Lester Dent was, which few are. Read enough of them and you hear the gears whir, which is a problem with sticking to the same outline. Even the "Hero's Journey
" begins to pall after you've walked through too many variations on the theme. (Unless Tolkien or Pratchett is writing it --but I digress)
Other writers begin with no more than a character and/or a situation -- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley started Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
with no more than a nightmare. And that's an outline of sorts, too.
I struggle with plots and my work and leisure activities often interfere with long uninterrupted writing sessions; the reins slip from my grasp. Having a better idea where I was headed helps me get things back on track. Taking writing classes when I can, what I'm learning is there's no one good way to write; people tend to be "plotters" who get the broad brushtrokes down first, or "pantsers," who let the characters and situations develop the story -- but nobody is all one thing.
Know your own process, and don't kid yourself; "freewriting" is fun, but it's work, too, precisely because it is so very difficult to not be steering, if only a line or two ahead.
Outlines aren't hairy, bearded monsters, just waiting to grab, they're trails -- some very faint, nearly invisible, while others are like iron rails, strong and inflexible. Most are somewhere in between. Maybe you don't have one. Maybe you do. I don't know.