To Outline or Not to Outline?

To outline or not to outline? That is, without a doubt, one of the most contentious issues in writing, both in fantasy and in fiction more generally. Terry Brooks, one of the foremost advocates for outlining in the fantasy world, shares an anecdote in his writing memoir Sometimes the Magic Works that Anne McCaffrey (another giant in the genre), once said that she’d never outlined a thing in her life. Stephen King is also one of those writers who doesn’t really like outlining, preferring to simply throw his characters into a narrative and let them figure out what to do.

Obviously, each of these options has its benefits and its drawbacks. Outlining lets you keep control of the narrative from the beginning to the ending and, as Brooks avers, lets you focus on the other key aspects of writing such as setting, characterization etc. This can be especially useful for those writing in genres such as epic fantasy, in which having an eye on the main narrative can be very important (and can keep narrative bloat to a minimum). On the other hand, not outlining lets you have a lot more freedom, allowing you to really explore the world and characters that you’ve created. For some that’s terrifying, for others that’s exhilarating, just as for some outlining is stultifying and for others it allows them to stay on track.

Personally, I come down somewhere in the middle. I generally have a pretty firm idea of where things are supposed to happen in my narratives, and I almost always have an ending in mind for a series (even if it’s just a snippet of a scene, having this sense of finality is very useful in structuring the rest of what I do). To me, it really does help to know where things are going to end up, even though I try to leave myself at least a little bit of wiggle-room when it comes to how it pans out.

This isn’t to say that I write in anything remotely resembling a linear fashion, because I certainly don’t. When I’m in the first flush moments of composition, I’m often jumping all around the place, going wherever the muse demands that I go (this is true for my nonfiction writing, too). I’m not really one of those writers who has to have inspiration hit, but I am someone who finds it difficult (most of the time) to stay rigidly focused on a particular narrative. So, I just have to go where the urge strikes me.

Now, obviously this strategy has some strengths and weaknesses. As I noted in my post about the advantages working on several different projects at once, it can sometimes get a little overwhelming to try to stay on top of all of them. Similarly, the hardest part about my process is the point at which I’ve really sketched out the broad strokes and need to buckle down and fill in the gaps and/or revise. I don’t know why, but I always find that my forward momentum always slows down substantially during that part in the process, and I’ve had to really work hard to make sure that I build in time for this toward the end of a given project.

As with any writing advice, however, a great deal of what you do depends on what works for you. If you’re a person who really needs structure in your life in order to function or to be productive, then outlining is probably for you. If, on the other hand, you find that you need the freedom to really let your ideas soar and reach their full potential, then maybe, as King suggests, throw your characters into the worst situations you can think of and let them find their own way out. The important thing is not to try to push yourself into a model that doesn’t really fit you. This is the surest way to ensure that you don’t get anything done and that you spend more time focusing on your process rather than on the actual act of writing.

Whatever strategy (or mix of strategies) you adopt, just make sure that you write consistently. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

The Benefits of Having Several Projects At Once

Everyone has their own writing process. Some people write for hours at a stretch, some right in bursts. Some enter into a sort of fugue state, where all they can think about is the work at hand. Others flit from writing project to writing project. I’ve always been of the belief that there’s no one method that works for everyone, and that you have to really just find the one that works best for you and go with it, rather than try to fit yourself into some predetermined mold that might not work for you (and that might actually keep you from getting your work done).

Personally, I (KC, that is), like having several projects going on at once. I know that this might sound a bit counterintuitive to some, and there are some drawbacks to it. For me, however, I find it difficult to stay too focused on a single project for too long. I suppose that some might say that that’s something I should have checked out, but I prefer to think that it gives me an opportunity to always stay energized, to not get bored with any one project because there’s always another one to be working on. (Incidentally, I tend to follow the same practice with books. I’m often reading several at once, as just a cursory glimpse at my Goodreads account will tell you).

To use an agricultural metaphor that I once read about somewhere, it’s a bit like crop rotation. By switching between projects–often during the course of a couple of hours–I keep myself from getting tired of working on the same thing. In fact, it keeps me inspired, and it keeps me energized. If I find that I hit a creative road-block, then I know that I can just switch to something else until the block is cleared. So, for example, on any one day I might be working on: a piece (or pieces) of The Filliquian Chronicle, a short story in the same universe, a novelette that’s unrelated to all of that, as well as a blog post (or two). Let me tell you, it’s never dull around here.

Admittedly, however, this process does entail some rather notable drawbacks, foremost of which is the danger of being so scattered that I never finish anything. Indeed, once upon a time that was my greatest challenge as a writer, and my computers would be filled with discarded stories in which I’d lost interest as I moved onto something new. Part of that was a function of the fact that I was usually either in undergrad or working full-time, so really keeping focused on writing was really a challenge. It’s taken me quite a while to shake off those bad habits and to focus just as much on finishing at least one or two projects a month (it helps that I have Kellen to keep me on the straight and narrow, since he’s almost always waiting to get something from me).

Indeed, as I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve started to become more successful at seeing projects through to their conclusion. I suspect that some of this is due to the fact that I actually finished a dissertation. Just in case any of you aren’t familiar with what’s involved with writing one of those, it’s essentially writing a book-length scholarly discussion, which has to go through several rounds of revision before it’s ready to be defended. As a result, you’re very much encouraged to make steady and reliable progress (even though, it must be said, this usually works out better in theory than in practice). I can assure you, the feeling of accomplishment at completing a beast like that is enough to encourage you to see every project you start through to completion.

The key to this method of composition is, I think, building in a mechanism that keeps you accountable to someone other than yourself. When you’re simply writing in accordance with your own deadlines, it can be all too easy to start making excuses, to reassure yourself that you’re still on track, even if you don’t finish something. By having some external power, you can make sure that you meet important deadlines. I don’t know about all of you, but disappointing someone is always a great motivator for me to finish something.

So, while it might not for everyone, I find that having multiple projects going at once is a key part of my creativity. This might change at some point in the future but, as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!