Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Outline or Not to Outline?

When I first started writing, I believed that there were only two ways to tackle writing a book: outlining or stream of conscious writing.  An outline is not only useful to help you keep track of the direction your book is heading, it also can make it easier to maintain continuity throughout your story.  Certainly, outlining also helps you figure out how close you are to finishing too (which is great for morale).  The great thing about outlines is that they can be as detailed or as general as you want.  If maintaining the continuity of your main plot and subplots is your primary focus, an outline will keep you from painting yourself into a corner, or from making leaps of logic that are hard for your readers to believe.  Outlines, in my opinion, are great so that you don't lose site of the big picture of your story.  The problem that I have with outlines is that they tend to make me feel like I'm boxing in my characters, as well , as myself, to make the scenes fit the outline.  As a story progresses and characters grow and develop, they may outgrow the outline.  Now you run into continuity problems or start making those hard to follow leaps in logic.  Granted, you can always go back and the outline; however, I think that only sets the stage for frustration and may tempt some writers to decide to scrap the whole story.  

Stream of conscious writing is very difficult and very rewarding at the same time.  It's as close to improv as you can get as a writer, because it puts the writer in the reader's seat as well.  When writing this way, I find myself pausing to consider the conversation or circumstance.  Often, when using this method of writing, I'll also act out the dialogue so I can hear the way that the dialogue is being delivered.  It makes it easier to describe the tones, facial expressions, and even emotions.  It also gives me a better opportunity to gauge whether or not I'm realistically capturing the reactions that one character would or should have towards another.  The goal, for me, with this form of writing is not reaching a preset destination as much as it is fully exploring the journey to wherever the characters decide they want to go.  The downside to stream of consciousness writing is that you are giving up a measure of control and handing it over to your characters or whatever fleeting whims you are feeling at a subconscious level.  Again, this could derail the plot or take you down roads you may not have wanted the story to travel.  Life is full of unexpected things and, to some extent, we want our stories to feel somewhat lifelike or believable.  Basically, stream of conscious writing could leave your readers feeling like there's too much randomness to your story.  More importantly, you may find that you've created a situation where the inmates are running the asylum.  With a character like Savannah Keller, I had to be extremely vigilant about this concern while writing "Of Murder and Monsters."  

As I've gotten older (but not necessarily wiser), I've been following a hybrid approach to the two methods.  I've got a general outline that helps me navigate the overall direction where I want the story to go and how I think it should end.  Meanwhile, I give my characters "free will" (not so much free reign) within the frame work that I've set up.  It's similar to the idea of having free will, yet still being bound to certain prophetic outcomes or immovable fixtures in time.  Otherwise, the hero would overcome every single obstacle, spot the traps before they were sprung, and crush all of the villains before they could become a challenge.  Or, even worse, the story takes on a formulaic feel and the characters never really become three dimensional.  

Everyone has a different approach for putting together their story.  Some folks just sit in front of the computer and hammer away.  I've done that before and, to some extent, also did that when I set out to write the first draft of "Of Murder and Monsters."  It probably made the writing process longer than it should have been, as trying to finish the book that way made it far more difficult to keep the continuity straight (i.e. plenty of re-reads, edits, revisions and complete chapter rewrites) before I finally got to the point where I could start working on a second draft.  Once you figure out the approach that suits your creative style, you'll make more progress towards finishing the first draft quickly.  From there you can move on to one of the other critical aspects of writing: polishing.  

Do any of you use outlines?  Is anyone following a pure stream of conscious style of writing?  How are those methods working out for you?  Have you had to make changes to the methods you follow, or are you following a completely different method/model for your writing?  Feel free to share in the comments section below.

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