Last night at the Arlington Writers Group meetup, we had a workshop discuss on outlining novels that proved to be both interesting and helpful. The topic was popular enough that it forced us to move into the school library to accommodate all of the members who wanted to participate in the discussion. And it was an interesting discussion, and having had some time to consider it, here are my thoughts on the subject.
First, the discussion helped to reinforce my decision to stick with short fiction for now, and to focus on improving my craft there. Outlines take time to write and I’d rather spend that time writing fiction than crafting outlines. Granted, you don’t have to write an outline to write a novel and there are those who just work by the seat of their pants. But as I pointed out last night, in the science fiction/fantasy world, if you are going to try to sell a novel, the publisher is going to ask for an outline and so it is something you’ll have to have anyway. I don’t want to invest the time in constructing an outline for a novel that may fail for other reasons. At this stage of my writing career, I still need to work on some fundamentals of storytelling. Short fiction is idea for that because I can practice and experiment in a story, send it off and start on the next one. And usually, within 30-60 days, I’ll have feedback on the story that I submitted in the form of an acceptance or a rejection. For a novel, it would take a year to write and edit, and then another year or two waiting to hear back from publishers or agents and I don’t have that kind of time. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to make a living as a short fiction writer, but that’s never been a goal of mine, and I’d much rather strive to become a really good short fiction writer than a struggling novelist.
Second–and something I didn’t mention during last night’s discussion–is that it seems to me that outlining is an artifact of the publishing industry. Though Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo is an intricately plotted novel with lots of characters and hidden identities and twists and turns, I have a hard time imaging Dumas writing an outline for the novel. I have a hard time imagining Agatha Christie writing outlines for her novels (she may have, but I just can’t picture it). It seems to me that outlining grew out of two things:
- The need for publishers to look at a greater volume of work more quickly (“chapters and outlines”); and to make financial decisions based on those first three chapters and outline.
- An industry-evolved attempt at trying to put structure on something that can be difficult to cage.
I’m not arguing against outlines here and if I were writing novels, I would be making extensive use of outlines. But I can see the “pantsers” (or blank-pagers, or whatever you’d like to call them) point about a story growing organically. The danger of an outline is that it does hem a writer into an accepted framework. That said, it is a useful tool to help a writer keep his or her thoughts organized as they plod their way through 100,000 words.
I don’t use outlines for short stories in the same way that I’d use them for novels. I might create a handful of index cards in Scrivener that cover the key scenes of the story. As I write, I’ll add or remove additional scenes and rearrange them as necessary, but that’s about as close as I get. When writing short fiction my focus is on writing and practicing and learning–with a result that is, hopefully, entertaining.