In For Writers, The Technical Stuff

Before I got an agent, I heard one of the many legends about J.K. Rowling: she outlined Harry Potter for five years before she ever wrote a word.  It was one of those dark moments for me, one of those “I’ll never be worthy” experiences.  I couldn’t outline anything for five minutes let alone five years.

I have always resisted outlining.  I have that artists’ snobbery about drudgery: if I am really creative, I don’t need to do homework.  When forced by a teacher to outline as a first step in a paper, I’d just write the whole paper and then copy the first lines of each paragraph for my summary, turning in only the summary as if that was the only thing I’d written.  Later I learned that teachers rarely compare an outline to a paper, so I could write utter crap on my outline and then write whatever I wanted in the actual paper.  Who were they to mess with my process?  Whenever I imagine writing anything – an 8 page paper, a 500-word blog post or a 300-page novel – I have a distinct flow in my mind.  It feels rhythmic, like a melody in my head.  I don’t need no stinking outline.

Except, eventually, when it came time to write my first novel, I committed one of those writerly faux pas: I queried before the entire novel was done.  When I got a bite from my now-agent, I had to churn out the rest of the book fast.  Desperate (and kicking myself for my perpetual ants-in-the-pants), I scribbled down a list of scenes I had to write.  Less an outline and more a “beat sheet” like screenwriters use, it gave me a clear path for the story.

And, my goodness, did it help.

Therefore, grudgingly, I have written outlines for all my stories since then.  I haven’t liked it, of course.  The only way I’ve seen my way clear to doing it is that I’ve told myself they can hardly be considered outlines, since they’re just notes of what will happen when.

And then today I came across this scribbled jumble of J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  And it’s… wow… a list of scenes!  Not magical or otherworldly, but a hand-written scrawl of what happens when across various plot lines.  Finally, the spell was broken (pun fully intended).  If this was what J.K. Rowling’s outlining looked like, it put her firmly in the realm of human, working (brilliant, awesome) writer and not in the pantheon of the gods.  It’s not that it made me think I was any closer to her in talent, but that we are all alike in our to-dos: crafting a story is like cobbling together a structure and making sure it stands firmly by the time you’re done with it.

I am the last person to write the guide to outlining.  But I am highly qualified to write the anti-outliners’ guide to outlining.  It is simply this: write a list of things that must happen for your story to reach its conclusion.  Make sure it paces well.  The end.

So… do I like outlining?  No, not really.  But I do it and it helps.  And I am not afraid of it anymore.  And that feels awesome!

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