Monthly Archives: August 2013

Outline? Or let it flow?

One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:

When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)

This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.

When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!

When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.

When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.

When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.

It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.

There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.

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Back to brick and mortar

Last week marked my return to an actual brick and mortar classroom for the first time in several years. Oh, I’ve been teaching, but online is very different from a live classroom. And even though I posted about the challenges of online, it was clear to me after only the first day that nothing beats that face to face interaction.

Part of it, I think, is forced engagement. If you know me, you know that I’m going to make every effort to get you involved in my classroom. “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer—unless I’m asking a math question—which I would never do—and then I probably don’t know the answer either! You remember what they say about opinions, right? They’re like noses: everyone has one.

That’s why “I don’t know” doesn’t work. When talking about creative writing, you either like it, or you don’t. It either works, or it doesn’t. In a classroom, students can discuss the good and the bad (and sometimes even the ugly) to what’s working and/or why it is or isn’t. Online works hard to mimic that, but much of the onus is on the students; it depends on their level of engagement. I can’t “force” them to be engaged in an online former.

To be fair, because my class falls near the end of the program, all my students are effectively seniors and generally (thus far, anyhow), they’ve been both fairly engaged and motivated. That’s always good for the instructor; their motivation feeds an instructor’s desire to pass on knowledge and to help the students improve.

A colleague here says we like it because “every teacher needs an audience.” While this is funny, I’m not convinced this is true. Maybe for my colleague. 😉

And you’ll note that it’s been nearly a month since my last post. While I won’t bore you with the minutiae (it feels like I’ve been talking about moving for a year or more!), we finally loaded up a Uhaul and moved all our things to Orlando…to a storage area. Yes, we’re still crammed into my efficiency for now. The housing market shocked us some; not so much because of price, but because of how fast houses sell here—I mean these things go in a matter of days! BJ and I aren’t used to making a decision that fast about such a big investment…so we’ve got an apartment lined up while we continue to shop.

AND, in other good news…artwork is beginning to come in from the projects I’m working on—that’s exciting. I’m hoping to post about the first one next week!

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Filed under Moving, Projects