Tuesday, January 02, 2007

To Outline or Not To Outline

So, today is the first "work" day of the new year, and I had all kinds of grand plans about hitting the ground running and being miraculously more efficient than I usually am. And then I slept more than an hour later than I planned to, and it took me longer than usual to get myself going. I may have to start setting an alarm. I think I have bear blood that makes me try to hibernate at this time of year, and even when I go to bed early, I still end up sleeping ridiculously late when left to my own devices. One nice thing about working for myself, though, is that I really don't have to get out of bed if I don't want to. It just means I have to work later in the day.

I have already crossed a couple of items off my day's to-do list, which is more than I usually have done by this time of day, so I'm not being too terribly bad. One thing I learned in all my time management reading is that if it takes less than two minutes to take care of something, you should just do it when it comes up. It's simple, but brilliant. So many of the things I procrastinate about are stupid little simple things that I could get off my plate so easily, but I put them off until they become more major. I'm also going to implement the concept of a tickler file for managing pending things. We'll see if this newfound enthusiasm lasts more than a few days.

Now, for my writing tip of the day. Writers often talk about "plotting" vs. "pantsing." The plotters like to outline the whole book before they start while those who write by the seat of their pants just like to start writing and see where that takes them. There are extremes on either end. I know of writers who storyboard the entire book before they write a word, with every scene outlined on a color-coded post-it note stuck on a poster board. The thought of that makes me break out in a cold sweat. And I know of writers who start a book with no more of an idea than a character's name, and they write to figure out what the book is about. The thought of that also makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I think most people, including me, fall somewhere in the middle on that spectrum, with some falling closer to one end or another. This is one of those things where you have to figure out what works for you, and anyone who tells you absolutely that there's any one right way to do things is wrong. However, when you're trying to write fast, at least a little bit of outlining or brainstorming can really help. Even if you don't outline the whole book, just taking the time to think about what happens next can save you from the dreaded "I don't know what happens next!" block.

I've found that the parts where I come to a screeching halt usually involve one of two things. A big one is fear -- I know it's a big scene, something I've planned in my head, and suddenly I'm afraid to write it because I know it can't be as good on paper as it was in my head and I want to keep it perfect for as long as possible. There's not much to do about that other than make myself write it and promise myself I can continue to tinker with it until the book is published. The other big red light for me is not being sure what should happen next, and that's where brainstorming can help. Fifteen minutes with a spiral notebook can save me hours of tearing my hair out.

Here's how I try to work (and note that I'm doing this as a potentially helpful example, not telling you an absolute way to work): When I'm on pace, I try to write a chapter a day. I like to end my chapters with a little hook or mini-cliffhanger to keep readers turning pages, but that has the same effect on me when I'm writing because it makes me want to see what happens next, and to do that, I have to write it. When I finish the chapter, then I get out my notebook and start brainstorming the next chapter or scene. I make a random list of things that could happen next, then from that I get a sense of how the next scene will play out, so I can write an outline. That way, when I sit down to work the next day, I already know what will happen. I may have been thinking about and imagining the next chapter as I fell asleep the night before, so I've already seen the movie in my head and it's just a case of transcribing the scene I've been picturing.

That method may not help a true "pantser" because some of those people lose interest entirely once they know what will happen. They're writing to find out what happens, and once they know what happens next or how the story ends, all their enthusiasm is gone. If you're one of those people, I can't help you because I have no concept of working that way. I would be utterly paralyzed. If anyone who works that way has any tips for keeping on when you're stuck, please share!

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