Wednesday, January 24, 2018

In Which Outlines Are Outlined

     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.


John in Philly said...

I recommend reading Farmer's novel, "Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life."
Available for the Kindle.

I read quite a bit of Doc Savage when the novels were reissued way back when. The internet says that "Man of Bronze" was issued in 1964 and I probably read it around that time.

Mad Genius Club has discussed the differences between pantser's (seat of the pants writers) and outliners on several posts.

Anonymous said...

Outlines for me are the only way to get your subject matter written concisely. It takes way less time figuring one out, vs. typing and inserting our thoughts as you write, making the writing appear choppy. Maybe that is just my impression.

Not sure if this is appropriate here, but wishing Tamara Keel a very happy birthday - I hope her day is kickin' !!

Roberta X said...

John, my copy of that book has been read and reread! :)

Pantsers, plotters and....panzers? Some days, it seems like it would take a tank to get anywhere at all when I'm writing.

Anon, I tend to get started and then write an outline, usually very rough. Too much detail slows me down but too little detail makes it easy to get lost.

I'll pass your birthday wishes along.

EdB said...

Steven Pressfield covers the topic pretty well in "Just do the Work" in a very non-intimidating way. Highly recommended

Countglockula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Countglockula said...

Kudos to Lester Dent and his fearless protagonist, Doc Savage. Back in my youth, I spent a fortune on the paperback issues of the stories, 150+ of them as I reckon it, and reveled in the formulaic, repetitive adventures of Doc, Ham, Monk, Long Tom, and Rennie. And Habeas Corpus the pig, of course.

While very predictable, and a bit dated even then, the action never stopped, and made for many a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

Formula ain't all bad... it works for babies too.


Drang said...

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing Tribal Lays
And every single one of them is right!

Poems - 'In the Neolithic Age'
Not sure this is exactly what Kipling had in mind, but it fits.