Something I discovered about how I write is that I find it hard to trust myself.
That is, it’s hard to trust both my future self and my past self.
I think I outline so much because I am scared that my future self will be some kind of uncreative zombie and I have to give her all the tools I possibly can right now. There is always an immediacy to my writing. If I don’t write it down now, it will slip away and never get written, or worse yet, I will try to write it later and it will be something completely different than what I want it to be now. As a result, my outlines tend to be around 40,000 words. (Ten thousand more words and it would officially be novel length, people. I’m crazy.)
When I sit down to write from an outline later, I look back and think “who was the person who wrote this?” It feels contrived and false. Like I was trying to jam as much stuff in it as possible instead of letting it grow organically over time. I think I sense my former self’s distrust of my future ability and it dampens me.
I’ve gone back and forth with this ever since I started writing, until June 2015. We took a vacation out to Portland and Seattle. On the plane ride back, I was determined not to get motion sick like I usually do. So I had my notebook handy and tried very hard to only focus on writing. To just get stuff on the page and not pay attention to how the plane was moving. And it worked.
But it also worked for my writing.
I almost never write by hand anymore. It’s too slow and my hands are already hurting from working them so much that grasping a pen just seems like a silly idea. But I didn’t want to get out my laptop because I was in the middle seat and there was hardly any room. This also meant that I had no notes on the story I was about to outline. I was going to be starting Camp NaNoWriMo in a week and a half and still didn’t have an outline. This kind of freaked me out, so I was like “yeah, I better write this outline right here, right now, before we touch the ground.”
But I had to do it all from memory. The story in question is one I wrote many, many years ago, then stuffed it away because it was horrible. Still, it had some good stuff I can reuse (I hope), so I had planned to rewrite it during camp. I suddenly had to recall an entire, intricate novel’s worth of outline from over five years ago. This was the beauty of it: I was only allowed to write down the important things that moved the plot along, because I couldn’t remember all the other parts.
When I got home, I typed up the outline and was pretty proud of it. Then I looked back at the old version to see if there was anything I had forgotten or wanted to salvage. And I felt my inspiration faint on the fainting couch in a dramatic fashion: the previous version was not only pretty readable, there were some downright good parts I didn’t want to throw away. I told myself that my outline from the plane was rubbish and I was just going to have to keep the storyline the way it was from the old version, just make sure I updated the language and caught any inconsistencies.
I was tempted by the concept of an easy rewrite. I was also scared of my airplane outline because it was honest and I had to dig deep for it. It stripped out a lot of things I loved about the story, and I wasn’t willing to admit that it was better for it.
So camp started and I got about 15,000 words into my novel before I realized I was struggling. It was like pulling teeth to write even 400 words during a word war when normally I can beat out at least 1,000 in ten minutes.
Discouraged, I took an honest look at my airplane outline. I faced up to the fact that it scared me because it was so swift, lean, and clean. I was scared because with all the stuff I’d left out, it meant that my voice and good writing would have to carry the load, and that wasn’t the easy way to write a book. (But it is the best way.)
So I started over using the airplane outline, and things flowed so much better. I started to sympathize with the villain, care about the characters again. As to voice, well, I won’t know if I have that until I take another good, honest step back to look at it, when I have time to do that. But it sure felt good to drop all that baggage from the past and moved on with a trimmer, faster story.
Two take aways from this for me:
- Writing an outline by hand with no notes is definitely something I will practice with my stories in the future. Even the language I used was different because I wanted to write as few words as possible. It made me say things differently, and made the outline come out so well. It also forced me to trust my future self a little more. Instead of spelling everything out, I had to just say one or two words to convey what was to be written next. Being that future person now, I appreciate the trust and the freedom to interpret it as I see fit.
- Trusting my future self and my past self saves time and energy. And if for some reason I do turn into a noncreative zombie in the future, having a massive outline won’t help anyway. I need to consume some brains (aka, read other people’s good writing). A lack of an outline is not the problem, nor is it a very good bandaid for the problem. I need to look at other factors that affect creativity (health, diet, exercise, enough reading, enough rest, enough honesty, etc.)
In honor of my new discovery, this post is brought to you without an outline for once. 🙂 Hope it wasn’t too bad. If you need me, I’ll be over in this corner going through outline withdrawal. Please only talk to me in bullet points.
Also, I mistyped “bullet points” enough that autocorrect wanted to change it to bull sh*t. Lol. Please don’t only talk to me in bull sh*t. That will not help.