Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Virtues of Outlining

"Patti, just stop thinking about it and write the damned outline!"
That was Uma Krishaswami, my first semester advisor at Vermont College, who was always encouraging about my fantasy story The Witch's Daughter. Uma's encouragement did wonders for me, since this was the story that won the Marion Dane Bauer scholarship in January of 2007. I was quite honored.

But Uma didn't make that comment in a packet response in my first semester. She actually said it to me a few weeks ago, when I was visiting Vermont. I've been encouraged, nudged, prodded, yelled at and harassed into working on this story again. Jane Yolen told me "FINISH!" in October (she critiqued the story for me in January of 2008). My writing friends ask about it constantly, and my classmates will remind me of it from time to time, too.

In fact, this is the story that refuses to stay on my shelf. Sure, I let it collect dust from time to time, but ultimately, it ends up on the desktop again, begging to be written. I did write some of it--45 pages, to be exact--for my creative thesis. I worked on it for four semesters with four advisors, every one of them adding their touches and flavor to it. But now I have no advisors (although all four of my former advisors told me in January that they'd love to see it finished) and I have nobody to guide me through this process. I'm ON MY OWN. Scary thought, because last time I worked on this alone it ended up being about 500 pages with about 16 subplots trailing off in different directions--not good!

Well, it's back on my desk now, looking up at me pitifully, wanting to be finished this time--really finished. The task seems daunting because I know what the story is about, I know what plot elements I want to keep in, and I know how it ends. Duh, what else do I need to know? Um, how about how to take the story, incorporate those elements, and land it at the ending, where I want it to end? So simple. Not! If it were, the WD would have been done ages ago.

Margaret Bechard told me at the end of my fourth semester, rather resigned and apologetically, "Well, you might just have to write an outline." ACK! No, say it ain't so, Marg! (I never actually ever called her anything other than Margaret.) I HATE outlining! Why didn't she just tell me to cut off an appendage or volunteer for a root canal? OUTLINE! Yuck! When I saw her a few weeks ago, she said the same thing to me. As a matter of fact, all four of my advisors (whom I've never had all together at one residency before this, I might add) told me to outline this story. I was holding out for Jane Kurtz or Julie Larios to pull me aside and say, "Well, really, Patti, you're clever enough to pull this story off without an outline, or ANY planning or forethought, for that matter..." But that didn't happen.

Why do I hate the thought of the outline so much? It's so much work. I have to figure out what scene comes next and what flows where and what plot points are needed to move the story along... all those story elements that usually come so naturally to me as I write... wait a minute. Do those story elements really come so naturally to me? Or to any other writers, for that matter? And if they do, do their stories make sense?

Hmmm. Well, when I drive up to Vermont, I know where I want to end up, too. And I usually have a pretty good idea of how to get there. But there are some roads that I really am not sure if I'm supposed to be on, and turns that I'm not sure I should have made. I often don't necessarily take the quickest route, simply because I didn't plan my trip closely enough. (Ask my husband--he's been dragged along through many of my "scenic routes.") I rely on my internal navigator but it's not always that reliable. But I love maps and always have one handy for my car trips, so...

Grumble, grumble, grumble. I want to finish this story. I don't want to meet up with Jane Yolen again without being able to proudly announce, "I finished The Witch's Daughter, and... [fill in the blank about what wonderful fate becomes it when I start 'shopping it around'.]" It's a story that I love and am proud of. Marion Dane Bauer liked it too, when she read it for my very first workshop at Vermont College. I HAVE to finish it. For me. For her. For every person who has read it and loved it. For all those readers who haven't read it but will love it. (Of which I hope there will be many.)

I guess I'll go work on that road map now. But I'm refusing to call it an outline. It's just a map, really... right?



janeyolen said...

Not everybody outlines. (I don't.) And sometimes a roadmap is all but useless. (Try Edinburgh.)

But if you have 500 pages wandering all about the countryside, you need to do something. It's definitely Murder Your Darlings time. Have you read it aloud?

Jane Yolen

david elzey said...

the degree to which i outline determines whether or not there's actually a story worth writing, for me!

if it helps to call it a map, map it. i usually find the story runs off the map shortly after it's begun, but as long as it makes it's assigned stops it's all good.

and, really, don't you WANT to finish it?

janeyolen said...

I am not an outliner. Some writers (good writers AND bad) are.

Someone called what I do "Flying into the mist." I like that.

Jane Yolen

Patti L Brown said...

Well, I've never been to Edinburgh, and I've never been to Beauville, either. But I think I do have to murder some darlings if they're leading me astray.

I think my problem is my history with outlines. I've used them for works like essays and my critical thesis, so I tend to think of them as very structured and formal with sections, letters, numbers, and subsections.

I should look at this fiction outline differently. I should just basically do a story synopsis and then see if the story makes sense.

And hopefully I'll see who I have to chop out of the text. Hopefully it's someone minor. LOL!