Of Outlines and Merkins

A couple of people have been asking me about “the writing process” lately – the mechanics of actually sitting down and writing a book. Let me clarify something: If I was teaching a writing class, you probably wouldn’t want to attend it. Seriously, I’d just stand up the front looking confused, then start talking about how “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is actually a brilliantly written and conceived series, once you get past all the merkins and blood-porn.
I’m probably the last person you should ask for advice about how to write. However, I’ll give out one nugget of wisdom, which may only be true for me, and it is this:
Novel outlines are sunless alleys where great stories are dragged and quietly strangled.
Yes, I realise this is tantamount to heresy in some circles. I know of authors who write 30 page novel outlines, with each chapter planned out in meticulous detail. And this obviously works for them. I’m not knocking it, it’s just not for me.
I don’t write an outline in anything but the roughest, most bare-bones sense (usually four of five chapters in advance, and only towards the middle of the book). My problem with outlines is that they tend to take the spontaneity out of the writing process. It’s lovely to never have to sit down in front of a blank page and ask “So what happens now?” But the best twists and turns I’ve thought of in my books literally sprang into my head as I was writing the scene. ( Either that, or just bouncing ideas off my lovely bride). They are not planned. They are tiny, joyous little surprises, like finding that rumpled fifty in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans.
This is where I get my biggest writing kicks  – the moments where I surprise myself. And the problem with writing a novel outline, especially the kind that are minutely detailed, is that you don’t leave any room for that spontaneity – those “OMG, wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments.
(Besides which, if halfway through your book, you think of an awesome twist that totally changes the direction of the plot, all the effort you put into your meticulous plan has to be scrapped, because your book is headed in a direction you never anticipated.)
The best (and worst) moments in life are the ones you probably didn’t expect. If a turn in your novel surprises you, you can be damn sure it will surprise your readers too. And nobody is getting surprised if they have every inch of the journey planned out in some spiffy piece of writing software, color-coded and quantified like some Rimmer-eque revision chart.
You don’t need a map to go exploring. You just need a rough idea of where you want to end up, and a willingness to take wrong turns get hopelessly lost. But hopefully along the way, you’ll also find yourself in amazing places you never would have discovered if you set out with a shiny compass and a crisp set of directions and an exact idea of what your destination will be. And hopefully you’ll have some fun in there too.
Anyway, it works for me. But again, merkins and blood porn, so yeah…
Grain of salt, peoples. Grain of salt.

11 Responses to “Of Outlines and Merkins”

  1. sam says:

    Agree. Outlines should be tossed in the arena. *cue blood splatter*

  2. Cyle says:

    I agree. Writing is better when you’re actually writing. Planning it all out beforehand is a clever way to ensure you don’t get stuck anywhere, but then you’re not actually writing while you’re writing, if that makes any sense. It’s much more fun to let the story come alive as you’re creating it.

  3. Been lurking for a while now – this one brought me out of the woodwork.
    Outlines can be useful (in small quantities). The thing I always remind myself is that no-one but me will ever read the outline – therefore it is a tool – treat it like one and only use it when it is appropriate.
    I also agree that there is a joy to be had in ‘discovering’ your book as you write and I would never want to sacrifice that on the alter of preparedness!

  4. Glad to hear I’m not alone. I’m amazed at the number of authors who swear by them. Maybe it comes of deadlines, and not having time to spare wandering about searching for cool twists. Maybe you need to mechanize the process once you’re doing it two or three times a year, in order to stay sane.
    Wandering without a map can be stressful under deadline pressure (as I’m starting to discover). But I’d still rather spend a few weeks sweating and surprise myself than to plan it all out in advance. Takes the romance out of it all. 😛

  5. A-bomb says:

    You don’t need a map to go exploring.
    Lovely metaphor, and yet you should see how mad he gets in real life if we wander around without a map and get lost . . .

  6. Sarah Ball says:

    Just found you here, myself, and I had to agree (kind-of).
    I used to write w/o an outline until I recently discovered I was TERRIBLE at plotting. Now I make one, but it ends up looking like a choose-your-own-adventure venn diagram (now what? oh maybe this! or this! if this, then… etc.). And sadly, it IS [rimmer-esquely] color-coded. (Because I love to color-code my scrivener index cards).
    So here’s a question: what do you do when your agent or editor wants an outline? *eep* I’m struggling a lot with this myself right now. I just… can’t… commit…

    • Well, I wrote a sort-of outline type thing before I started writing the Stormdancer sequel. This was before I had a book deal, so it was more for my agent’s benefit than anyone else. It was about two pages long, and just set up the primary conflicts of the book. “X is in love with Y until Z” kind of stuff. It didnt’ detail any resolution, or how the book would end. I handed it over, and got the thumbs up.
      However, the sequel I’m almost two thirds of the way through writing actually has very little in common with that outline I wrote. The overall themes are still there, but the actual guts of the plot is nothing like what I outlined (its better). So again, this kinda proves my point – if I had’ve spend an enormous amount of time plotting that outline, that would’ve been time wasted.
      That said, I did write about 60k before I realized that my premise was flawed and reworked it (which is also time kinda wasted, but at the very least, it’s good practice). So if you don’t work to an outline, you need to be prepared to blunder about in the dark before you finally see the way out.
      I totally get not everyone will work this way, and that to some authors, the outline is their bible. That’s all good too. Whatever gets you the best book!
      Thanks for visiting btw! 🙂

      • Sarah Ball says:

        *Whew* that is kind of a relief to hear. I am trying to put an outline together for my agent but it is… incredibly awful. I’ve been digging around on the internetz and everyone seems to turn in 40 pgs. + footnotes. Whereas mine is colorful and nonesensical. Yeah. 🙂
        I think I may go for your approach. It’s good to know that it worked out well for another not-quite-so-much-of-an-outliner type-writer.
        And congratulations on the sale, BTW! I’ll def. be grabbing a copy when it comes out.

      • Many thanks 🙂
        I guess it really depends on your agent and the way they like to work. Some might insist you be more buttoned-down in your approach. Hopefully they let you do whatever you need to to turn in the best book.
        Being able to see the entirety of a novel, in advance, and plot it out from beginning to end is an exceptional gift imo. I’m just not that prescient or intelligent. And even if I were, I’d be worried that I was missing out on some cool twists and turns while following my roadmap.

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