All we are saying is give outlines a chance

Guest post by M.A. Hinkle

graphic for guest post by ma hinkle

I have a confession to make. It’s something that’s caused me a lot of concern and trouble over the years, something that has forced me to confront how I think about writing and what I think about writing.

I like outlines.

Yep. I said it.

Back in high school, when I first began to approach writing as a job instead of something I did when I was bored, I was a stolid “seat of the pants” writer. I often sat down to type (or write longhand) the beginnings of stories with nothing but a persistent image, a few character names, and a few funny scraps of dialogue. My thinking at the time was sort of “Go with what sticks.” I wrote down whatever came into my head. The stories that compelled me to come back to them despite my complete lack of plan got finished; the ones that didn’t… well, there’s a reason I have a folder of files with timestamps dating back to high school. (Even middle school in some cases. Gasp!)

I stuck to my no-strategy strategy rather religiously for two reasons.

A) On Writing, which argues strenuously against outlines, was my Bible as a young writer. (It’s not any longer, but I do still appreciate the book for introducing me to some basic ideas on craft, even if I don’t agree with them all any longer, and for allowing me to take myself seriously as a writer.)

B) Whenever I tried writing an outline, one of two things happened. First, I would lose the outline. I am a compulsive loser. Not a day goes by when I don’t misplace my keys, my phone, my glasses, etc. It’s no surprise that I kept losing every bit of paper I wrote my outlines out on—I was also much messier in high school. And, of course, once I lost it I had no desire to return and rewrite it. Part of me was always sure it would turn up—in a closet, in my old binder, blah blah blah. And if I tried rewriting it based on my memory, it never seemed as good as the imagined version I had misplaced.

The other option was more prevalent. Once I wrote the outline… I almost always lost interest in the story. For example, in high school I wrote my first high fantasy story. I  decided that, at one point, my three main characters would be separated, and the POV would alternate between them. After thinking about it for a bit, I realized this would be very complicated and decided to outline it. My outline wasn’t a typical, bullet-pointed outline—more like a story skeleton, complete with bits of dialogue—and I thought it was pretty cool.

Nevertheless… I haven’t written that story. I still think it’s pretty cool, and I have every intention to return to it someday… but that’s someday. I have no interest in doing the story now, which is the difference between a really cool idea and a finished draft.

When I got to college, and things actually began to impinge upon my free time, I realized I had to start using my writing time more efficiently. At this point, I was churning out a lot of drafts that, upon closer inspection, did not hold water—in a terrible, catastrophic, “the Enterprise is disintegrating” way that always makes the Scotty in my head run screaming without even shouting about my brain’s dilithium crystals.

I needed to shape things up. I needed a plan.

In short, I needed to figure out a way of outlining that actually *worked* for me, instead of forcing myself to work for the outline. I think a lot of the hang-ups I had about them when I was younger came from the idea that once I wrote something down, it was stagnant, immutable. I had to follow my outline, or my computer would immediately shit itself and die. Now I’m a lot chiller about them. When I sit down to outline now, I do so fully understand nothing I outline might make it to the final page. As I draft, the story usually gets away from me, and I realize the original path I planned wasn’t the right one. But the outline helps me get far enough into the story to get to the point where the wheels come off the bicycle, which is a lot further than I ever used to get starting with first lines or a neat image.

I’m not going to say I’ve found the “one true method” for outlining. There are several different ones I like, but I’m flighty and don’t like being pinned down, so I don’t usually stick to anything for more than one book. This has also helped conquer my fear of outlines because trying out a new method makes outlining feel fun and like a discovery instead of a chore. There are bazillions of different methods out there. Maybe someday I’ll find the perfect one for me, but the key there is it would be for me, not necessarily anyone else.

If you have already tried outlining and realized it simply doesn’t work for you, godspeed. I’m just trying to reach the people like me, who are on the fence about it—or believe that outlines are the antithesis of good writing. It’s bunk. Outlining is a tool, like writing software. Some people like a really stripped down interface where you do nothing but write. Other people like a million different functions and name generators and outlining tools. It doesn’t really matter how you get there as long as it helps you get words on a page.

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M.A. Hinkle (she/her)author photo of ma hinkle swears a lot and makes jokes at inappropriate times, so she writes about characters who do the same thing. She’s also worked as an editor and proofreader for the last eight years, critiquing everything from graduate school applications to romance novels. She has three published books in her Cherrywood Grove series, Death of a Bachelor, Diamond Heart, and The Weight of Living.

Check out her website at www.maryannehinkle.com

M.A. Hinkle will be discussing writing romance across the romantic spectrum and reading from her books during the IQARUS book con.