Category Archives: Beginnings

To Outline or Not to Outline

As someone who did not formally study writing, I figured out just recently that there is a raging debate about whether you should outline a book before you write it. Some folks feel that outlines are critical and others feel that it gets in the way of their creative process. I would be exaggerating if I said that I had a creative process, but I did wake up after a few months with 55,000 words on paper sort of organized into chapters.

In some cases, there were nice turns of phrase and some good descriptions but it was obvious that I would need help to complete, polish and fill out what I was writing. So, when I found K.M Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel, (visit her website), it came at a good time.

As I mused over her ideas and helpful text, I was really stopped by both the “what if” question and the chapter on backstory and character sketches. I took lots of notes.

But soon, I thought I needed some structure and plot and moved on to other books.

Then, I got stuck. The more I read about writing and the elements of a novel, the more I felt like I hadn’t really done anything. Somewhat out of desperation, I sat down one night and started to write a character sketch using Weiland’s hints and suggestions. And, suddenly it worked.

Anne Lamott has written that she just writes and that makes her writer. I sense that she isn’t as formal as Weiland about outlining but what I did was just write, but as a backstory and character sketch. The next thing I knew, I had five character sketches and almost another 10,000 words of possibly useful material and another important thing, the epiphany that lead me to consider writing as an essential life-changing event.


Because the story I was imagining was part of my own life and it became a powerful way to revisit some scary stuff and fill in gaps that I needed to fill in to find some balance.

So, I did not solve the “to outline or not to outline” debate, but I found that the great ideas of at least two writers helped me to another goal.

Okay, Maybe Revenge is a Strong Word…

I should, perhaps, be more careful with my words. When I said last time that I called my writing revenge, let’s just say it was like when you go to a high school reunion and you hope that the boy who picked on you has gone bald. But, really, if you are thinking those kinds of thoughts and writing that way, it isn’t entirely good for your karmic equation or any type of healing you are hoping for.

Ever the student, I read some excellent books on writing that focused on scene structure, description and outlining. The outlining book was particularly helpful because it asked me to consider each character’s motivation. So, while I used the skeleton of my life and things that happened to me, the outlining ideas forced me to consider what each of the character’s thoughts could have been and even what their life might have been like before I was born.

And, right there, right in that moment, when I could see the similarities between my life and what theirs could have been, something changed. And, then, wonder of wonders, it was like those Zen quotes, those Buddhist blogs and those New Age books. I was calm again. Because the process of trying to write good fiction had tricked me into considering the other guy’s plight and maybe even teased some empathy out of me. It was like sanding off some sharp edges in my memories. They were still sad but they could be viewed with an objectivity that is, for me, part of forgiveness.

So, like I said, maybe revenge was a strong word, but there was no doubt that when I started, my thoughts were not constructive and they certainly did not lead to an improved me.

Then again, maybe that is exactly the journey I am supposed to have.

Planting a Flag

At first, I started to write what I have called revenge. I am not proud but there is no doubt that the writing came out of me fast and furious, pages and pages. What I discovered was that the more I wrote the less I felt like revenge and the more I wanted to use writing as a tool to improve myself. So, the writing that would have been a blistering novel of the journey of a character through tough times became a way to confront the unfinished in myself.

Along the way, I found many bloggers who commented on their lives, their efforts to improve their writing and to improve who they were as people. This was a profound moment for me and I am very thankful for their generosity in commenting on their craft and their quest to improve their lives by choosing a career, really a vocation, that suited the people they wanted to be.

So, now I am planting a flag to get started on my own quest, which combines writing and self-improvement, using the tool of fiction to reflect, understand, forgive and improve. Thanks for reading.