lock me down to set me free

In case you didn’t know, I am attempting to write a novel (pause for the ooohs and ahhhs). I have attempted this endeavor exactly twice before, but I was young and stupid(er) and both manuscripts are less than half finished and collecting dust on my hard-drive.

This time. It’s personal.

I am going to finish this novel if it kills someone (not me, that would be silly).

Like all new relationships, my novel and I started out hot and heavy.  I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d sneak away while at work and whisper sweet, naughty things to it. We’d stay up late, talking and advancing the plot and doing things I’ve never done before like introducing multiple character points of view.  Heady times, they were.

But I knew if I was going to sustain the connection to my novel beyond a mere tryst, we had to get serious. Yeah, I’m talkin’ commitment.  I’m talkin’: OUTLINE.

Did you hear the dun-dun-DUNNNNN music? Cause you should have.  “Outline” is a dirty word to us creative types.  We want to be all “you can’t structure my muse” or “my characters tell me where the story needs to go” or “writing is an organic process that can’t be contained.”  To that I say, and pardon my French, bull-hockey.

Writing may be organic, but STORY is not. Story needs structure. Story needs outline.

If this sounds like I’m trying to convince myself, then you’re right. I am.  I’ve never done an outline before.  But I remembered the saying “the only common denominator of all your failed relationships is you” and I figured that I needed to change.  So I started an outline. And it was hard. Really gawd-awful hard. So hard that I questioned the purpose. (Yeah, I know. You’re saying, “If it was easy then it wouldn’t be worth having.” Well, shut up. This is my blog and I didn’t ask you.)

Then, while browsing the internet one day, as I am wont to do, I came across Mary Robinette Kowal’s interview on the website i09.  In particular, this passage:

How does working within limits (puppeteering instead of acting, writing Glamour in Glass only with the vocabulary Austen actually used) improve your work?

I think that working within design constraints forces anyone to be more creative. When you can do anything, frequently there is no focus to the work. It sprawls. Take Spider-Man, on Broadway, as an example of something that could have benefited from being constrained. When I’m teaching puppet building in schools, I confine students to using only paper for decoration. If I offer them yarn or glitter, they focus on the materials rather than the effect. When they have a limited set of materials, they don’t get distracted by the shiny. It’s not that artists should be hampered in order to create art, but that being hampered forces one to rely on the innate creativity instead of throwing all the shiny bits at the page.

Did you see those words: design constraints.  I did and they struck a chord.

I’ve been giving myself design constraints once a month for over a year now.  I glue together a little character, be it a zombie or a robot, and construct a very short story around that little paper figure.  I am bound by the parameters of its design.  I also took part in Blogdramedy’s insane December challenge, wherein I wrote a 144 word story once a day incorporating the gifts from the 12 Days of Christmas song.  And you know what? My zombie, robot, and Christmas stories are some of the best stuff I’ve posted on this here blog.  Really.  I read back over those posts and go, “damn, I wrote that?”  Yeah.  I did.  And I wrote it while being confined by predetermined rules.

Can we say “Light-bulb Moment?”

That’s when the idea of an outline became less of a chore and more of a challenge.  If I can work with such limitations as word count, incorporating a certain phrase, or including the characteristics of a paper figure, then I surely can work within the confines of an outline. (And don’t call me Shirley.)

I work well with structure.  Who knew? Me. Who can’t even be bothered to style her hair or iron her clothes, thrives on organization.  I’m just as surprised as you are.  But I am relieved.  Liberated, even.  Because I know if I can create a less than 500 word story that I’m proud of using arbitrary guide-lines, then imagine what I can accomplish with an outline to a whole novel.

I think I just fell in love.

37 thoughts on “lock me down to set me free

  1. Bravo! Beautiful and inspirational. Now I have an entirely new perspective on the outlining I need to do. And we already know I’m heavy-duty into structure! Can’t wait to see the result.

  2. Well, lady, you and I have a lot in common when it comes to writing. Sure, I can write a story and just go with it, but it takes structure for a story to be great. I am currently working on an outline, but I don’t know if I should be detailed with my outline or just talk about various scenes and where it’s going, etc. It’s hard knowing what to put in your outline and what to keep out. Any pointers?

    • I did a lot of reading about outlines, and there are just as many different kinds as their are writers. What I found helped was to write down how you wanted the story to end first. Then fill in the rest of the outline with the steps that get you to that ending. I don’t have a lot of detail in mine. Just a lot of “THIS needs to happen so THAT can happen next” and so on. It also helped me to write down a list of my main characters and their personality traits and the motivations.

  3. I say hell yes to outlines. I live for them. And storyboards. I have moleskine notebooks filled with outlines and storyboards of projects I haven’t started on yet. I am a nerd for these things.

    I am also working on my first novel. So good luck to you! I’m pretty darn exciting. Keep us updated on your progress!

    • I wish I could draw better, because I think storyboards would be a great tool for me. I actually see the story I’m working on in my head like a graphic novel and then I write out all the detail. My outline right now is pretty abstract, but I am adding to it and hope tha tit will keep me on track.
      Good luck on your novel, too! It is exciting. And terrifying. But mostly exciting.

  4. I don’t think I have the discipline or powers of concentration for a whole book. A whole book full of blank, white pages?…forget about public speaking, that’s my nightmare.

    Does having an outline help to break the perceived 10,000 mile journey into more manageable short hops?

    • I didn’t think I had the discipline, either. I wrote short stories forever. Then this idea hit, and I realized it was much bigger than a short story. But, when you think about it, each scene in a novel is it’s own story. It’s really just a series of short stories all connected to one another. It helps me to think about it that way at least.
      I do think that having an outline will help with this long journey. I have plot points written down and I just have to write to get to each point. Not to say that it’s easy. Writing is hard work (at least for me it is). But I love it, so it’s worth it.

  5. I would love a peek at John Irving’s outlines. To me he epitomizes how to weave those details together. You are growing up little girl. On that theme, Happy Birthday tomorrow!!! Checks in the mail.

  6. So it’s come to this, has it?

    I haven’t written a full novel, but I took one of my NaNoWriMo pieces and worked on it for a long time. The story and I had a wild, passionate relationship for awhile, but I got to the place where things felt out of control. I guess I always knew that we had reached the point where we both needed parameters if we were to take things to the next level.

    Thanks to you, it’s now clear that we needed an outline.

    Your post reminded me of The Everyday Work of Art by Eric Booth. He said that artists needed “frames” to help us shape and contain the things we create. At first I thought that went counter to the creative experience, but I have come to realize how true it is.

    Maybe that’s why I did BlogFestivus 2011 and just signed up for the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge (and am also thinking of doing ScriptFrenzy).

    Oh, and, “Oooh! Aaah!” to your writing a novel!

    • Maybe you can use an outline to rekindle your relationship with your NaNo piece. See if you can’t get the magic back?
      To try to reign in a creative process does seem counter intuitive at first, but it does make sense. It also is important once you make the distinction that you want what you write to be read by a wide audience. Structure becomes very important.
      Thanks, Dan!

  7. I know I am not talented in the direction of producing a novel. But you are. I think the outline is important. Another type of outline I used for essays was to put ideas in boxes and make a network or tree of boxes with just a few key words in them . I think it is also called mind mapping.

    • Yes, that is mind mapping. I’ve tried that on occasion before to gather ideas for a story. It’s a lot more abstract than an outline, but it can serve the same purpose.
      You have your own talents, Carl!

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  9. Woo hoo!!! Congrats to you! And, thanks for sharing this ‘light bulb’ moment with us, too. Man, I love it when I read and learn something new. And, I loved the Airplane! reference. Always a winner in my book.
    Awesomesauce, Amy!

  10. So I guess I’m good for something after all…other than inventing new ways to ingest vodka that is. Good on you for embracing your inner…structural Scheherazade. May your next 1,000 nights bring you riches in writings. :-)

    • Inventing new ways to ingest vodka is a noble calling. You’re doing the world a service. And “structural Scheherazade” is awesome. Thank you!!

  11. Uh oh you used the “O” word!!! That spells commitment alright! Surprisingly some structure and direction can help guide the story and we can even be open to some changes along the way. You know how it is. Kind of like my life…

    Structure is good but you can’t tame the wind. Guiding the wind is possible thought and I have no idea why I went off on this little tangent.

    I love reading your blog posts I can only wait for the day that I can read your book(s) or compilations of short stories!

    • The think about an outline is that it isn’t set in stone. It can be amended or added to as the story evolves. It’s just good to have a road map. I hope that you read my book one day, too!
      Thanks, Dionne!

  12. Great insight. It’s surprising how much time and energy a good outline can save. I wrote two books without much of an outline and spent years revising to fix the things that wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place if I’d just spent ten hours outlining at the very beginning.

    • Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I already have a bad habit of editing as I go, so my writing pace is very slow to begin with. Last thing I need is years of revision on top of that if I can help it.
      Thanks, Paul!

  13. Good luck! I’ve been reading some issues of “Poets & Writers” –two things I don’t really consider myself but might like to at some point — and they’ve had some very good articles on both inspiration and slogging through.

    • I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and they have some great articles, too. I’m pretty okay in the inspiration and slogging through department. I more have problems with self doubt and wondering if what I’m writing is even worth a damn. Very nice comments from folks like you on this here blog help out with that a lot. :)

  14. This post really came at the right time for me. I am in the same place right now. Last month I told myself, Dammit, I am finally going to write a book, an entire book! I’ve been writing all of my life, so why not a novel? And I sat down with a schedule in mind (write at least 3 pages a day) then I hit 10,000 words and said, holy crap, where is this going? What does it all mean? I needed more of those connections, those details and things that make sense and help to make a novel really come together so it will resonate with the reader. So I spent a weekend scribbling out an outline. Basically the beginning, middle and end. All of the settings, scenes, big moments, all sketched out. It was torture at first, but now I’m relieved to have it done so I can just write within that structure. It really does help to free things up!
    Good luck with your novel, Amy.

    • Yep, that sounds almost exactly how I did it, too. Writing the outline was kinda like torture, but I am glad I did it, and I revealed things about the story that I hadn’t considered before. It was an eye-opening experience.
      Good luck with your novel, too!

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