Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

My Imaginary Outline and Me

By 
Krista Heiser
©2003, Krista Heiser
       

f you would have asked me a few months ago whether or not I use an outline when writing, I would have had a quick and easy answer:  No way.  In retrospect, I realize this response was somewhat misleading, which is why I've decided to revise my answer. 

I do use an outline, just not in the traditional sense.

The word outline brings with it many connotations.  First and foremost, I think of paper and pencil.  Roman numerals.  Capital letters.  Lowercase letters.  Numbers. To me an outline implies a structure you're obligated to follow.

These associations were formed through years (and years) of schooling where even small 2-3 page writing assignments had to be broken down into an outline.  The requisite roman numerals, capital and lowercase letters, and brief phrases determined the structure of every writing assignment.  Even without reading the paper, you could have summarized it simply by scanning the outline.

So when asked about outlining in relation to my fiction writing, I would suppress a shudder and deny the need.  I considered myself an organic writer and thought of outlines as unnecessary and confining. 

Little did I realize I was lying to myself. 

I do use an outline.  And while it may break conventional rules by not being written out in some tangible form, it is still an outline.  It's my imaginary outline.

Here's how it works:

Novels are plotted, characters are created, and scenes are developed well before I ever put finger to keyboard.  I know the beginning and the end.  I can even begin writing at this developmental stage, although I'll admit there are times when the middle remains vague until I'm well into the story. 

Do I write out any of these ideas?  Nope.  Not a one. 

Days or weeks can pass as the idea ferments, takes on flavor, and then matures into something substantial. Those parts that survive the chaos of my mind tend to emerge as cohesive stories.  Perhaps the secret resides in keeping the ending firmly in mind and making sure my central conflict never falls far from center-stage.  Whatever the case, this method has worked for me. 

So why then did I purposely join a class at Forward Motion in hopes of learning how to outline fiction?  Because I knew it worked for other writers and I wanted to find out if I had denied myself a critical tool for improving my writing skills. 

I'll admit the first time I had to provide an outline -- approximately 30 scenes for the novel I planned to write -- I nearly pulled my hair out.  However, knowing how terrible I would look if I were bald, I resisted the urge and persevered.  I muddled my way through the outline until I had something workable.

In all honesty, it took far more effort to define the outline on paper than it did to store it haphazardly in my mental filing cabinets.  The reason, I believe, is simple.  While the outline in my mind was workable, it was patchy at best.  Writing the scenes down really forced me to weigh the impact and significance they would have on the story.

What kind of consequences did this have on my writing?  At first, I felt trapped—kind of like when you're on the interstate and the next exit isn't for fifty miles and the kids are in the backseat yelling they have to go.  Now.  Once I had struggled past this initial panic, I began to feel a sense of confidence. The rest area may not have been in sight but I could gauge my progress simply by glancing at the roadmap and watching the little towns pass one by one.    

So what happens when the writing wants to deviate from the straight and narrow interstate?  I've discovered it's all right to take a shortcut, or even the scenic route.  Some of the best road trips I've taken over the years are those where we've gotten off the interstate and seen a bit of the country.  In writing, as long as the story's central conflict remains firmly in mind, taking the unplanned exit ramp can be surprisingly rewarding.

This is how I learned outlines are not the enemy.  They are not counter-intuitive to the creative process.  They are simply a roadmap, a means to gauge your progress and to help you plan ahead.  Use them or not.  No one but you will ever know how far you strayed from the interstate.