On Outlines and Books

Outline Complete by BionicBotanist from FlickrI can remember, sort of, writing my first book back in college and how in awe I was when the structure finally revealed itself to me. I became very enamored with structure at that point.

I can remember, pretty well, writing my second book, and how the structure was one hundred percent laid out ahead of time. That book, which is not currently available, was almost a tribute to structure. The sections were named and framed before the first word was written. There were a lot of surprises along the way, but I knew what I was going to write about when I sat down each night. I didn’t realize how much of a luxury that was.

The book after that I became scared of writing without a structure, and even though there wasn’t a very firm idea from the outset, I attempted to outline the hell out of it because of that fear. I outlined sections and specific scenes and character reactions. When it came time to write it, because I had zero space to breathe lest I abandon my structure, I felt like I was jamming action figures into stories they didn’t fit into. It was horrible. That was, in my experience, the absolute worst method of creating a book.

After that I was afraid of outlines.

That’s why I did the Twenty-Six Stories project. I wanted to shake loose from the crutch of outlining and see what I could do if I just forced myself to write. The result of that was a list of short-stories that I love as well as Probability Angels, the first book of mine most people have ever read.

Then came Persistent Illusions, which I can’t remember in the slightest because it still feels like I just finished it a week ago. I have no perspective on what it was like writing that except that nothing made sense and then suddenly it all made sense.

Through all of this I’ve come to view my role in the writing process as almost passive, which is good. I feel calmer and like I’m creating the way I want to without pressuring out work that will only get cut anyway. On the other hand there’s still…I mean…I talk about this in phrases like “the structure revealed itself to me” and “it all fell together” and it sort of sounds like something else does the work, like some outside force comes along at night, book gnomes maybe, and works the kinks out of my book for me.

But that doesn’t happen. I’ve created this very Zen-esque approach to writing where I try to stay calm and let it happen as it’s going to happen, but sometimes I act like an idiot because I still need to exert force in order for something happen.

It’s like one of those Play-Doh extruding machines. All the skills you build up in yourself practicing writing is like perfecting the leverage and the molds you can use for extrusion.


But in order to employ those, you do need to just push out some freaking Play-Doh.

Play-Doh is a weird word.