Stop the Train!

square_trainHang on, we just pulled the emergency brake. We were nearing decent speed when I faced the fact that we had to stop, and now we’re at a complete standstill while I do some maintenance and get my head on straight.

Here’s what’s going on: I’m writing this new novel. Some of you may have seen the good and exciting news elsewhere and/or know I now have an official deadline, real and true, just like I like ’em.

First draft deadline: Feb. 1. But want to write to the end so E can read first: Dec. 1. Besides, my first drafts need a lot of self-editing. To make Feb. 1, I really should try to hold December.

Say that happens. Then that gives me THREE AND A HALF MONTHS to get all the pages out and get them out good. There will be fifteen chapters, maybe sixteen. That’s a bunch of words, and the math… let’s just avoid the math.

Basically, I have a lot of work to do. I’m a slow writer. It’s been slow. I can’t just spit out pages and have them stand up afterward worthy of reading. If I spit out pages, they may as well be trashed, so what’s the point of spitting? And in this voice especially—my narrator, C., sees the world in a very detailed and specific way. Her details are all her own. What she notices and interprets and imagines and reveals is distorted through her eyes and seeing through her takes me time. I can’t let C. sound like anyone but herself. I can’t let her go flat.

So why did I pull the emergency brake when I have just THREE AND A HALF MONTHS to write an entire book, and make it good?

There’s the answer. I want it to be good.

I’m aware of the pressure—it’s there. I can see expectations and I want to meet them. But more than what any external forces may or may not be thinking, there’s me and what I know I’m thinking. Insecure me, perfectionist me, ambitious me: I want to do it for myself.

The truth is, the last five novels I wrote were done with detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines. Sure, four of those novels were on assignment and don’t have my name on them and I pretty much had three or four months to write them anyway, so they needed to be planned out and pre-approved beforehand. But I wrote my last novel like that too—the first one with my name on it—I had to do an outline per the contract because it was sold on chapters (and that outline turned out to be 38 pages single-spaced), but I didn’t mind at all. I liked it.

There. I said it: I liked it.

I don’t have to write a chapter-by-chapter outline for this new book, since a synopsis was already done (remember THAT struggle? so relieved my agent put up with me!), so I thought, I’ll just keep writing! I know what happens in the story, mostly. Everyone else writes without outlines, why can’t I!

And here we are, brakes shrieking to a stop and we’ve all got whiplash.

It’s a crutch, the outline. It’s not brave. It’s not nearly as exciting as this “pantsing” method I’ve heard other cooler writers take on while writing first drafts. I once went to a reading of an incredible fiction writer, someone so literary and amazing I’m nothing like her but I used to want to be. After she read, there was a Q&A. Someone asked her if she outlined or planned out her novels beforehand. She venomously spat out that she never writes outlines, NEVER, and she doesn’t plan her novels, NOT AT ALL, because that would ruin them. She just lets them decide where they want to go. Her characters tell her. This is ART.

I believe this. I believe it is art. I would sure like to be an artist who channels her characters and has no worldly idea what she’s writing until she’s reached the end and looks up and seen she’s written it.

But I’m no artist, not like that. What I am is a writer on a deadline I’m determined to meet, and you know how I’m going to succeed in meeting it? By outlining.

It’s not reckless and exciting. It’s not sexy. It’s a little bit shameful. But now you know.

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10 responses to “Stop the Train!”

  1. This makes me feel so validated about my obsessive love out outlines! 😀 😀 I outline 500-word articles when I have to write them; I for sure have a chapter-by-chapter outline of my manuscript. Because if I don’t know what’s going to happen, then…How am I supposed to write it? I really can’t do seat-of-my-pants because I have to write *to* something; to some kind of point.

    (All I can do with seat-of-my-pants is wander until I get an idea, and when I do get an idea I write it down so I don’t forget it, and then it ends up an outline anyway. Why fight it?)


  2. I outline too. Though honestly “outline” sounds too neat and orderly for the scribbles I put at the beginnings of chapters to remind myself of what I mean to accomplish. I don’t think that using outlines makes you any less artistic. That’s like saying painters who sketch are less artistic than ones who go straight to the canvas and paint. It’s the end result that matters, not how you get there.


  3. Dude, I have to outline, too. Although like you, what I did write as far as I could without an outline, first (i.e., go backpacking without a map…for as far as I could go before encountering a trail-block). it was a pleasure to do that initial exploring and it informed the outline I wrote next.

    Good job for you to lay down the foundation, it should not be a shameful thing. It is wise. My vegetable garden does better with higher quality soil, a good foundation. Why shouldn’t your writing/your novel? 🙂


  4. I agree with everyone else that using an outline does not make one less of an artist. I think that to not use one and to pound out that flat character you are avoiding would make your novel less of an art. So outline away, make it art…


  5. I have zero doubts about two things:

    1) That it’s going to be good &
    2) That you’ll meet your deadline.

    Also, I believe you are an artist! Outlines are artistry all their own!


  6. Um, I’ve outlined my novel. over and over and over again. Otherwise I simply can’t keep track of what’s happening. I admire anyone who can write a novel and refrain from outlining but I am a creature who needs organization and would lose my mind without my outlines – whole plot lines would be dropped! I think there are a lot of way to be an artist…it’s up to each of us to find our own way.


  7. As a panster, all I can say is I’m jealous of outliners. Wish I could outline, but when I try I draw a blank. I know I’m going to throw away 90% of what I write. It drives me mad. But it can’t be helped.

    Just wanted to pop in and cheer you on, nova!


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