Dispatches # 8: Is this an outline I see before me?

I don’t write with outlines. (In fact, I find starting with an outline kills the story.) This frustrates teachers who bring me in to talk to their classes and want me tell children the pedagogical rules for writing, which seem to start with an outline, although lately I’ve noticed that they’re being told to make something called a web before they make an outline. “Uhhh,” says the author, when a little boy asks, “Do you use a web?” “Um, I look things up online sometimes …?” I suggest. “No, a web,” he says. “A web, when you’re writing.” “Uhhh,” says the author. I’m still not clear on that. The closest I get to webs is thinking sometimes of Robert the Bruce and his persistent spider, and the message therein. But anyhow, outlines. Nope, don’t use ’em. Sorry. Some authors do, I assure the teachers. Many authors do. The Spouse does. But I don’t. There are lots of ways of writing books, you see and some work for some people, and others work for others. It’s art, not formula.

I do, however, hit a point where an outline comes into the story. This is usually halfway or two-thirds through or thereabouts. Until that point, it’s a lot of exploring of mysterious paths. I liken it to a forest, with a distant mountain visible. (Visible how? Is it necessary to climb a very tall tree, like Bilbo in Mirkwood? That didn’t work for him; not knowing he was in a low spot, he saw nothing but trees stretching on forever, which, come to think of it, is a very good metaphor for many stages of the writing process anyway.) Grant me that the mountain is visible, or at least, known to be there. That’s the end of the story. To get there, though, is a matter of finding one’s way through forest and bog; it entails a lot of wandering and a lot of dead ends, or going miles along a winding path and realizing that it’s the wrong one and it’s necessary to retrace one’s steps and take that other fork, the road not taken that was actually the one that should have been followed from the start. Until the next fork. Or the unfordable river. Or the deep and miring slough. And then one backtracks again. The current project has been particularly bad for that. I shudder to think how many really long fat fantasy novels-worth of writing I have done, getting it and myself onto the right trail. But here we are. I just need to go back and unpick a character who started off as the hero, turned out not to be, was downgraded to secondary character, taken out, put back in, and whom I have finally admitted to myself to have no place in the story whatsoever. I’ll miss her. I liked her a lot. I think she can get herself into the final volume of the story, though, so she’s not lost forever. But … but … but …

… suddenly the ground underfoot is rising. The Kindly Hermit has given me a map; that is, the outline has happened. Having written it all down frantically last night, and slept on it, I still feel quite happy and settled with it. Yep, that’s how it all happened. Just need to get the words down. There are quite a lot of details still to unfold as I get to them, of course, but the bones are there, the interconnections, the logic, the shape of things.



About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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One Response to Dispatches # 8: Is this an outline I see before me?

  1. Paul Welch says:

    Enjoyable read! I haven’t been in the habit of outlining, however my brain seems to do it for me. Trying to change that and discipline myself into actually formalizing the process.

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