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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Thrill is Gone--Mary Buckham Explains Why Outlining Can Feel Like a Drag!

Mary Buckham was in town a couple of weeks ago. If you haven't met her, or had the pleasure and privilege of taking one of her classes, well, POOR YOU! She's just super. A giving and generous teacher who will keep working with you 'til you get what you need. (And I've taught, so I know how sometimes you want to throw up your hands and say, "Um, this just isn't going to happen!")

I asked her this question: "I've noticed that as I work on my story outline, the whole 'luster' seems to dull. Last night reading Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, he 'talked' about the danger of speaking your story because when it's new and fragile, it can be damaged by careless comments from others. And it seems logical to me that as I outline, that I'm sort of killing the frog--that's a reference to a comment by Mark Twain about how you could take apart a frog to see how he jumped, but you'd kill him in the process.

I do see my work more clearly, and my writing is more confident after my extensive outline. I do know that I've included twists and turns, this a normal part of the planning process? When you and Dianna plot, does some of the shine of the idea go dull?"

And here's her most excellent response:

"I think most authors enjoy a pre-writing euphoria of the 'new story' because it's like an unexplored path down a shady glen - no clue what's going to be around the next corner and that wakes up our inner child to simply have fun! Then there's the 'into the story' part of the process -- which is work and work is a four-letter word :-) Doesn't mean it can't be fun but it is the reality-adjustment part of the process - asking the hard questions and pushing the boundaries of craft in seeking options for the strongest plot possible.

"This is where I hear the word 'hard' come into play when working with writers-particularly newer writers who are used to only the end result-- a beautifully plotted and crafted book with no concept of what was involved to get a project to that point. Great news though is after the reality-check of plotting a book comes the exploratory, didn't-know-that phase that is part of the actual writing.

"This is where a plot keeps you centered and grounded while the words on the page suck you into the the experiences and emotions of the point of view character and unleash the fun again. There's nothing like getting lost in telling a story while knowing your pages can be kept because they are not willy-nilly exercises in writing but building blocks to creating a great story. So the short answer is yes -- sometimes the gleam of a story can fade but the cool thing is beneath that gleam can be gold if you're willing to keep polishing and polishing. I think what Swain referred to more was when we talk our ideas or share without thought to who we're sharing with. At that stage a story can wither under the nay-sayers or lack of enthusiasm and that's very sad. There is a very fine, but very clear line between criticism and critique and both can kill an idea at the bud stage."

LJ Sellers also tackled the "should I try an outline or not" topic here

It's tough work to write a book, and following an outline takes discipline. I asked Stuart Kaminski once what he thought about the whole outlining versus not-outlining process. He said that he would never have been so prolific if he didn't outline. The gist was...non-outliners start in a flurry, but frequently find they don't know where to go, or that they've written themselves into a corner. Amen to that!

If you've ever tried to tear apart a book to rewrite it, you know how horrid that feels. It reminds me of trying to get your car out of a rut. No matter how hard you twist the wheel, you keep going back into the same hole in the ground.

For now, I'll stick with outlining. How about you?


Alan Orloff said...


If I didn't have an outline (not too detailed, I like to leave lots of room for spontaneity), I'd end up past left field in the outfield bleachers, rather than rounding the bases, headed for home.

And you are right, when it comes time to revise, that outline helps to remind you where you need to go, and where you ran out of the basepath a little (to stretch a metaphor).

Holly Y said...

Hi Joanna,
I'm struggling with this whole outline idea. When I outline in detail, it's as though I just wrote the story and so why continue.

I'm learning a lot about plot these days, and in the process I'm also finding different sorts of outlines, most based on the 3-act structure. These seem to actually help with my story.

I'm finding, as Mary Buckham describes, the gleam of story shining through the foundation of plot.

It's still tough, though. Right now I'd rather outline a space flight.

Holly Y

Julie Compton said...

Hi Joanna,
Great topic -- one for which every author has a different opinion. I must admit I'm not an outliner, mainly, I think, because I simply don't know what my story is until I start writing. Very rarely do I know what my book is "about" at the beginning. Usually, a scene comes to mind, I start writing it, and then the ideas flow from that. At some point I DO start to take notes about where I think the whole thing is headed, so maybe that's my particular form of outline.
I think I have the same problem as Dwight Swain. If I talk about it, or try to write it down in an outline at the beginning, I lose my enthusiasm for writing it. I have to keep it bottled up inside until it's far enough along . . .

P.S. So glad to hear the library event went well! You are an inspiration. :-)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Hey, I hear you. I emailed Mary about this because I was feeling "bored" by writing to an outline. BUT...I also see how because I have that outline, each day I write on target rather than writing the way a dog does when she's circling, circling, circling before plopping down. Let me see if I can get Mary to join us for this "conversation."

And Julie--Wowzer. You're a doll.

L.J. Sellers said...

Even though I outline, I always get new ideas as I write and they keep the story exciting. And the details that come up when I actually place a character (and myself) in a scene while writing it. Always interesting!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Okay, this is my third try at posting this for Mary--Hey, Google, what gives?

Hey Joanna
So sorry I couldn't pop in earlier - was teaching plot structure to a great class of 11, 12 and 13 year olds in Idaho. What an exciting group and a perfect example of being new [really new] writers who start a lot of stories and then don't know how to finesse an idea to create a whole novel. Most of them managed 20-30 pages and while they could see the 'end' way down a ways they didn't know how to move from opening to end without simply having stuff happen. Writing by the seat of the pants can be exhilirating for many and the only way to write for some. I think we must all honor our own process while being open - at least once - to trying a different process. Joe Finder was mentioning this in a recent posting where he tried 'no plotting' to create Power Play. He ended up throwing away a lot of pages and said he probably wouldn't try the experiment again [at least any time soon] because it wasn't an efficient process for him. At the same time he still created a NYT book (grin).
Thanks for a fun topic to discuss!
Mary B :-)