Is Outlining Optional? Not For Me!

Outlining is a confusing concept to most beginning writers, at least it was to me. For an author just starting out practically everything about writing has a sort of mystical aspect and outlining can be daunting. Where do I start? What do I put into it? Will it inhibit my creativity by boxing me in? To answer the first two questions, that depends on you and your story. I’ll return to the last question a little later.

I asked myself all of those questions about outlining when I first started writing. Then one day I read something that advised starting your story from the ending. That is, decide what you want your finale to be and then go back to the beginning and write yourself where to you want to finish. I decided to try it with an assignment for a workshop I was taking. It worked surprisingly well. As rudimentary as it was, just a single point to work toward, I consider that to be my first story outline. However, I still had reservations about anything more elaborate. As often happens, experience changed my outlook.

My first book was a memoir about my experiences during and after hurricane Katrina. It seemed like a good story, had all the details already in place and would serve as a good first project. I surmised that if I could tell that story well in a narrative context it would be excellent preparation for writing fiction, if not then maybe opening a snowball stand would be a better career choice. After all, if I couldn’t tell a story that I lived through then I probably couldn’t make one up from scratch.

I’m moderately happy with the end result, for a first novel at least. “New Orleans: City of X’s” isn’t great literature, but it does tell the tale competently. My point here though is that about half way through I had questions about my timeline, so I did some double-checking. I was appalled at how far off I was about when things happened; dates and times that I was certain of…I thought. I had to go back and do a complete timeline for the parts of the book that I thought were almost finished as well as what I had yet to do. That led to me doing an outline to go with the timeline, just to be sure. I figured that if I was that far off about when, then maybe I needed to make sure I had the how and why right too. To be clear, this was an unforgettable story that I had actually lived through, not one I was making up. I am now a reluctant disciple of outlining, if for no other reasons than consistency and avoiding memory lapses.

Now to the question of artistic creativity. I’m not advocating a step-by-step injunction from which there can be no deviation. My method is more of a loose guideline to keep me basically on track and organize my thoughts. I take my basic concept, choose a beginning and ending, add a handful of plot points in between, describe them in just a sentence or two and take it from there. The first two outlines of the story I’m currently working on changed so much that I threw them away and created a third. I look at outlines now the way I look at first drafts, everything is expendable, everything changes. It’s like a road trip with an eclectic group of friends. We may start in New Orleans with Los Angeles as our destination, but where we end up along the way is up to the whims of the people along for the ride. My characters have already rerouted our current trip several times, and I suspect that more detours lie ahead. I look forward to the journey.

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