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Conversations with an Outline

When I teach writing, I try to keep in mind that everyone has a different method. Just because I’ve plunged into work without a clear idea of where I’m going doesn’t mean that other people won’t write something great by beginning with a structure. So I offer exercises that focus on developing scenes, wherever they’ll end up, and exercises that ask writers to turn their eyes from particular moments to glance toward beginnings, middles, ends, and back again. A painter has to be very careful about the spot where her brush touches canvas, but often steps back to see how one color looks against another, how a particular shape looks within the frame.

As we near the end of the semester, I asked students to write one through ten, starting with their character’s birth, which is probably going to be outside the narrative frame, and use ten for the last scene of their novels. The other numbers should be key points of action or insight, and again, some may not appear within the story. They had ten minutes. I’m never very generous with time, as we have so much to do. Most found it helpful to take this long view with a rough outline, before going back to early chapters.

Recently, Amy Greenfield wrote a great post called How to Write Fast(er) about picking up speed (noting that speed is relative) while writing the sequel to her novel, Chantress. Her method includes outlining, and breaking away from it.  I’m in the very early stages of the first novel I’ve begun with an outline, albeit one that’s so saggy it flutters in the slightest breeze. I’ve got index cards and maps, but no push pins -- I’m willing to let everything slip-slide around as the characters develop, or change from minor to major, or disappear. I’m inviting a sense of structure earlier in my process, but also spending relaxed time with my characters to get to know them, and let them change before my eyes. A sloppy process, and when I’ve tidied some dialog, sometimes I go back to check my sketchy maps. Letting the outline speak to the paragraphs under my fingers, and letting them talk back.

I still write out of order, collecting parts of scenes that don’t belong. I won’t let myself stop until I’ve found them a place. And now my smudgy outline also gives me a sense of safety, like the stack of books at my elbow. People have made their way through. There’s something ahead to keep reaching for.


A wise post, Jeannine. So much of writing is "whatever works for you" or "whatever works for this project." Good luck with this project.
Thanks, Kathy!


Fluttery index cards

Hi, Jeannine. I like your method of starting with a loose outline or story map. I don't write from point A to point B (or Z) either, but tend to compose scenes as they arise in my thoughts or from the characters. Your class sounds great. Lucky students!

Re: Fluttery index cards

Thank you!!
I'm experimenting with a more sloppy outlining and first draft writing process - it definitely helps the characters develop more organically and I can hear them in my head more. And I feel less pressure for it to be good, first time around. Somehow, this way, my inner-critic is quieter.
Anything to quiet that inner critic! Good luck, Angela!