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.