The Rules of Chaos: Leaving Your Outline in Order To Find It

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Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Justine Musk | Posted on 20-06-2007

By Justine Musk

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One of the most common questions people ask me about writing – other than “where do you get your ideas” (or, as my mother-in-law once put it, “How does a nice trophy wife like you come up with stuff like this?” I assume she was joking, or at least half-joking, because that question still cracks me up, although when I share it with others they tend to look slightly horrified ) – is “Do you outline?”

And one of the things that annoys me about talking about writing is that so many people tend to come down so definitively on one side or the other.

If you don’t outline then you risk aimless, self-indulgent writing and months or years of wasted time and you’re a fool!

If you do outline, then you risk rigid, formulaic, predictable fiction and you’re a fool!

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Ultimately when we talk about outlines, we’re talking about process, and the process behind novel-writing varies from writer to writer and book to book.

I made an experimental decision not to use an outline for the novel I’m working on right now. The result so far as been 100 pages of the strongest first-draft writing I’ve done in a long time. But to get to the point where I could feel confident writing a novel without an outline required many, many years of writing with an outline.

Outlines have worked for and against me. It’s important for me to understand why.

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I outline because plot and structure don’t come easily to me. So I get insecure. It was not enough for me to vaguely know how the thing would end 300 pages from now; I wanted to hold the shape and structure whole in my head before sitting down to write the first page.

The benefit of an outline is that it requires so much thought and happily musing, meandering note-taking that once I was finally working off a completed outline, I knew I would complete the book itself. I’m not one of those writers who has a lot of half-finished manuscripts languishing in a basement somewhere (since our Los Angeles home lacks a basement) – from as early as my teens I took great pride in the fact that even my crappiest manuscripts were whole and entire in their crappiness. So I not only learned about navigating middles and endings – tough to do if you always quit 50 pages into a novel — I also developed a sense of myself as someone who not only starts novels but finishes them.

This helped me in the early part of my marriage. BLOODANGEL took so long to write and involved so much lulling, musing, backtracking and rewriting that my husband worried that I would give up altogether and sit on my laurels – or rather, on his laurels, which by that point had become shockingly financially lucrative – and then go somewhere nice for lunch. When he raised his concerns – repeatedly — I could laugh and swat them away. I knew I would finish.

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So an outline lays out the bones of the story. You can take in with one sweeping glance how one thing leads to another leads to another, in a chain of action and reaction and proaction and ever-building consequence, while the stakes get higher and the characters get in deeper.

And an outline keeps me on track, particularly important since I’m happy to lose myself in the kind of backstory and tangents and details that turn out to be interesting to no one but me. Once I hit the bleak, thorny stretch of novel where you often feel so disoriented, muddled and lost – otherwise known as ‘the middle’ – an outline pointed me back to the path that led home to the end.

Sometimes this was a good thing.

Sometimes this was the problem.

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I was struck by something Josh Waitzkin said about his success in the chess world. Josh – the subject of the movie SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, which I loved and have watched several times – was an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. In his book THE ART OF LEARNING, he links his style of play to his personality and recognizes a major advantage:

“It is my nature to revel in apparent chaos.”

Unlike his child competitors, who relied on sophisticated opening gambits to win the game, then began to lose confidence and fall apart the longer and more complicated the game became, Josh liked to play the edge, found joy and interest there. He didn’t mind losing some advantage to his opponent in the beginning. He knew he could prevail by guiding his games “into positions of tremendous complexity with the confidence that I would be able to sort through the mayhem more effectively than my opponents. I often sensed a logical thread to positions that seemed irrational….” (p 41).

I myself do not play chess. (My husband, however, plays computer games, and sometimes I like to watch. For a few minutes.) But Josh’s observation made me immediately think of all those movies and novels where the writer sets up an excellent first act – and then the story goes into decline, falls apart, disappoints.

Some of my practice novels failed for these kinds of reasons. I set up intriguing premises – that went nowhere. I was like one of those chess players with a good opening game that then fell apart. It was partly because I didn’t know the rest of the game as well as I needed to — had yet to absorb the knowledge of craft in order to truly work it – and also because I had an issue with artistic control. I wanted to dictate my process, instead of respecting the ebb and flow of the story as it evolved deep in my mind.

This is the thing about outlines. If I’m not careful, they give me an illusion of control that turns out to be just that – an illusion.

I used to think that, to be a writer, I needed to write pages of my novel everyday. I’ve since learned that this isn’t true. A lot of novel-writing takes place away from the computer screen, in that mysterious elusive territory of the unconscious – the ‘undermind’, as I call it. I can sit in front of my laptop for four hours and manage five pages. Or I can jot down some ideas, notes about the scene I plan to write – perhaps sketch it out briefly – and then turn it all over to my undermind and go out and have a life (or try to). Later, I return to the laptop and write five pages in what feels like minutes – and the pages are richer, deeper, my undermind serving up a new twist or insight or cool detail that I didn’t even know I had in me. I don’t know how that process works, but I know that it does work, and in order to write well – and efficiently, since my life now requires I use every moment in the day or else I’m sunk – I need to trust it.

The outline vs the undermind.

The conscious vs the unconscious.

The controlled, planned-out approach vs the freefalling leaps of intuition.

In recent years I noticed a pattern to my spats of ‘writer’s block’. I would be writing well and easily for many days in a row, the pages would be piling up and then – bam. Roadblock. Sometimes I would surrender to it, go days without writing anything, and then a lightbulb popped off in my head, usually while I was working out or driving –activities that lull me into a contented zoning-out while engaging in forward motion, a condition my undermind seems to quite like. I’d realize a new story insight, a change in direction. Perhaps I’d realize that the scene I thought I had to write I shouldn’t even write at all. Then the writing started moving again and I’d be humming along.

Sometimes I took a different approach. I would use the outline to grit my way through the writing of scenes that did not want to be written. Then, later, I would come back to those same parts that caused me trouble – during revision, often at the agent or editor’s request. It became clear that this was the point in the novel where the novel itself had gone wrong. Here, the outline and undermind had parted ways, formed a fork in the road – and, by relying on the outline, instead of respecting the STOP sign my undermind was throwing up, I had made the wrong choice and would pay for it. The only way I could make things right again was by backtracking to the fork and dumping pages of material — in the most recent case about three quarters of a 90,000 word novel – in order to try again. This time in the proper direction, inventing a new outline that respected and listened to the voice of the story as that voice steadily revealed itself.

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So I learned this: there’s a difference between using the outline to guide my undermind, and using it as a means of control, forcing my narrative into something that turns out wrong and unnatural. In order to learn how to properly use my original outline, I had to learn when to give that outline up. But doing this seemed a plunge into uncertainty and tension – that feeling of being muddled and lost, trapped inside your own story – and often I refused to do it even when I sensed I should.

“It was my nature to revel in apparent chaos…”

“…guide games into positions of tremendous complexity with the confidence I would be able to sort through the mayhem…”

But when you surrender the original outline, you free up your mind to better ideas. The thing about the original outline is that you wrote it before you started writing your novel. Before you started exploring and learning the novel in the way you can only do by actually writing the damn thing – not by talking about it, not by jotting notes and doing ‘research’. It’s common knowledge that when brainstorming, your best ideas will not be your early ideas. The best ideas work their way up from a much deeper part of your mind; they require some time and thought and patience to let surface. They also require some trust. Trust enough, when writing a novel, to step off the edge of the cliff. To plunge into complexity and mayhem with no clear idea of how you’ll get out of it. To write calmly and confidently from that position of apparent chaos while the undermind finds the logical thread leading you to a triumphant endgame.

The novel I’m working on now – called SHADOW HILL– was originally intended to be a novella, which I figured would be a good length for my little experiment in writing a story without a detailed outline. I wanted to dream and mull and muse the beast along, follow my undermind wherever it took me, and see what resulted. Since this is very much a work-in-progress I can’t tell you exactly how this turns out; ask me later. But so far it feels pretty good.

My strategy of navigation involves a lot of rereading, paying attention to things that in previous projects I have blithely ignored — a too-prominent moment with a seemingly toss-off character, a recurring image, a suggestive piece of dialogue that opens up, if I would only let it, a new, exciting storyline. It’s not that I was oblivious to these things. My mind tagged them for what they were – signals from the undermind — but then I brushed past them, eager to stay in control and keep working the outline, which always seems easier than digging deep and readjusting my course. Inevitably, though, someone whose editorial opinion I trust would point out what I already suspected but did not want confirmed: “Your story is somewhere back here. Right here. This is where you lost the trail….or where the trail lost you.”

Let me give two examples.

During the writing of the first act of SHADOW HILL, I came across in my non-writing life an article about the evolution of the paparazzi in the age of the Internet, where hunger for images is obsessive and all-consuming and extremes are required to get the money shot. My undermind worked this into the story, which is set in Los Angeles and deals to some extent with the otherworld of celebrity. My protagonist and her romantic interest have a moment with a pap. The moment deepened, took on unexpected detail: I begin to see this pap in my head: he wasn’t speaking Italian like I’d originally thought, but Portuguese, because this guy was a hardcore dude with a beat-up face from the slums of Brazil who has a long-running adversarial relationship with the romantic interest and has made a lot of money off him already. Because I was indulging and exploring this moment, the scene – inspired by the article I’d read – became weighted in a way that made it ‘important’ which was not my intention. Instead of ignoring it, though, I posed myself a new question: “Okay, is there some way to use this, to make this pay off later? How can I justify keeping this material when it comes time to revise and streamline?” Later, when my undermind served up an answer, a big chunk of what has now grown into a novel clinked into place. By letting that moment grow, I found a ‘logical thread’ linking up a significant subplot to impact on the main plot.

Another issue involved my protagonist’s visions of – and conversations with – her dead brother. This book is not, however, a ghost story; it’s an urban fantasy that pivots around a hidden world that has nothing to do with ghosts. And yet the brother was there on page one and provides foreshadowing and tension to keep things compelling while I gradually introduce my vulnerable ex-academic bad-girl protagonist to the hidden world lurking in westside LA. So I knew the brother had to stay. (Besides, I like him.) I also knew that this was a problem. An urban fantasy novel requires a huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. You, the writer, only get one such suspension. One other-reality, hidden-world, element of the fantastic, whatever you want to call it: the reader is willing to roll with you assuming you establish the ‘rules’ of this reality and ground it within the everyday contemporary world.

My other-world in this novel concerns the true nature of certain celebrity characters my protagonist encounters. Throwing a haunting into the mix was, I sensed, too much. Too contrived. If I couldn’t find some kind of link between these two elements – so that the reason she sees her dead brother is directly related to the story’s ‘otherworld’ instead of incidental to it – I’d have to lose him. The easy solution – the original-outline solution – was to trot out that catch-all device of ambiguity, imply that perhaps she’s imagining him, he’s her way of interrogating herself or warning herself. But I wasn’t satisfied with this. Honest ambiguity can be great and necessary. False or lazy ambiguity is something else entirely: it’s the writer taking the easy way out, being obscure and mysterious and pseudo-artsy in order to cover up flaws in conception and craft. Falling back on some “is the ghost real or imaginary?” thing would be a cop-out. I needed a different idea.

So I wrote the first part of the book while absently mulling this over, posing the question and feeding it to the undermind. And when I did figure out the relationship between the dead brother and aforementioned celebrities, it was a different feeling from the paparazzi example above. The story itself remains unchanged. What happened, though, is that a new dimension to a particular set of characters opened up: the paranormal nature that forms the heart of this story acquired a power and originality that, I think – I hope – will set this book apart from the many other urban fantasies already out there. We will see. But right now, it feels good. It feels like I am writing in the right direction.

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Although I am still relatively young – especially since female writers are allowed to age more slowly than, say, elite gymnasts or supermodels or Los Angeles trophy wives – I have been novel-writing for twenty years now. Some of those years were more productive than others, of course, but what strikes me is how long it takes to get a true sense of what the hell you’re doing, especially since the process itself will change from book to book. You don’t just need to learn to write a good novel, you need to learn to write the novel you’re wrestling with right now.

For me, an outline can serve as a teacher, introducing me to the basic movements of the novel that I need to learn. Perhaps a difference between a mediocre novel and a good novel, or a good novel and a great one, has to do with learning that story so well that you absorb it right into your bones. Rather like a dancer who learns her choreography so well with such skill that she transcends it: when you watch her, you don’t see her thinking through her technique, you see her becoming the dance and the dance becoming the music. Knowledge, intuition and technique come together, become something greater than the sum of their parts – not just art, but the fine, compelling kind.

When the writer truly learns the story, becomes in touch with the flow of the story, the outline itself becomes part of that flow. As the story moves and grows and changes, the writer steps to the outline to gain a long-range, heightened view, adapting and adjusting all the while. Then back into the story, moving farther and deeper, gathering new, intimate knowledge of the terrain only previously glimpsed.

Or at least, this is how I’ve come to understand my own process, given the nature of my personality. I am highly intuitive. I also appreciate a good plan. For me, the question of whether to outline or not sets up a false dichotomy: my own personal answer falls somewhere in between. I need to outline, but only if that outline keeps reinventing itself as my intuition sees fit for it to do. Otherwise I get stuck and my game breaks down.

The answer you figure out for yourself – as you absorb the lessons of others as well as from your own growing mountain of experience – will say a lot about who you are, not just as a writer but as a person. That, of course, is the fun of it.

— Justine Musk

Comments (14)

I, for one, will be interested to see how your experiment turns out. My own learning process led me down diametrically opposing lines. I never outlined. I wrote (probably) ten novels without an outline. Some of them I love…for instance, “Deep Blue,” which I consider one of my most personal and well-crafted works, was written “without a net”.

There is a point in such a novel, though, that terrifies me, and always will. That point is where you know you are getting to the finale – the end of it all – and you DON’T KNOW HOW IT ENDS.

I have literally frozen up at this point waiting for the (let’s keep using that Undermind term, I like that) The Undermind to kick in and lead me through the complexities I’ve created. It always has…usually in a flash that is so powerful (to me) that it sends me into a frenzy of creativity, capturing it before it escapes.

The thing is, though, it’s not uncommon to write 100 pages of the best writing ever without an outline…that’s the easy part. It’s drawing those 100 words into a coherent whole with the other two or three hudred pages that can give you the shakes.

Also, I propose that you cannot write without an outline (you, personally, Justine). I say this because in the act of describing writing without an outline, you clearly explained how deeply enmeshed the plot was with your thought processes. You just didn’t outline it on paper…:)

I put words on the paper,
All stacked up in rows,
A chapter-based roadmap,
for driving my prose,
Then it came back to haunt me,
My plans undermined,
Not by nouns, or by verbs, but that
fiend UNDERMIND.

DNW

PS I always write an outline now, and I almost never follow it after a point. Then, when things are out of control, I tend to write a partial outline starting from where I diverged in the yellow wood, just to keep myself honest and moving forward…

I don’t outline. I did, but knew nothing but ruin and failure. Now I don’t, haven’t in ten years or more, and I know . . . wait a minute!

Is there a third option?

Yes, I think Justine touched on it, and so did I…and so did you. You DO outline…in your mind. You conceptualize what you are creating without writing a formal structured THING to drag at your attention…you have transcended (:

Sully’s — you’ll pardon the expression — thoughts:

Outline…check.
Undermind…check.
Outline vs Undermind…UNcheck.

…but then you reconcile the two in the way they must be used in order to help each other climb the mountain, roped and belaying each other to the summit. The Outline must be in line with the Undermind, and the Undermind must not undermine the Outline. But then, each can reach for the other, “or what’s a heaven for?”

Check!

– Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

Lovely quote: “The Outline must be in line with the Undermind, and the Undermind must not undermine the Outline”

DNW’s advise about outlining from where the story converges is a good one. It’s kind off what I’m doing for my WIP, but sadly I seem to have to write out all the diversions and cut a path through them later…

So, Sully…you advise…

THE UNDERLINE (:

Outline meets Undermind

Or an Outmind?

Hmmmm

Excellent essay. “Undermind” is a perfect
word. Mine comes to the fore in a warm
bath or floating in the Caribbean. Must be
something to do with a sense of floating
in amniotic fluid.

Janet

There’s a quote from some general to the effect that “battle strategies rarely survive enemy contact.” But that doesn’t mean any general will go into battle without a plan. She just knows she will probably have to change and adapt.

An outline, to me, is the same. Make it, but don’t let it control you.

I write a bit more about this here in my own blog.

Sully wrote that “the outline must be in line with the undermind, and the undermind must not undermine the outline.” Astute statement, but I don’t think it’s always true. I recall a novel I outlined in advance and the ending or last third swung vastly away from anything in the outline. Yet something in the outline may have obliquely suggested the departure. Hmm, maybe that’s what you mean, Sully.

A really good essay. What’s that phrase — revel in chaos? Some people like that condition. At cons I went to, panelists frequently talked about whether they outlined or not. It shouldn’t be an either/or situation, but different strokes for different folks. But truly, the outline should not be a straitjacket or a procrustean bed you can never shift your imagination in.

Dear Justine –

Once again: excellent, and right on the money.

To me, the key comes in the section involving the dancer. To whit: letting the undermind’s true sense of story become second nature, by TRAINING IT WITH OUTLINES FIRST.

Once Undermind understands story and structure so well that it can do it in its sleep, it probably WILL do it in your sleep, or when you’re busy doing something else (a lot of my stuff happens in the bathtub, taking walks, or washing dishes).

In film, they call outlining “screenplays” and/or “storyboards”, among other things. You figure out how the story goes, what you want people to say, what the shots are gonna look like.

Then you get together with the rest of the production (actors, cameras, lights, locations, etc.) and you actually SHOOT the fucker. Following your outline/shot list/storyboards religiously, AND constantly adapting to what’s happening in the moment.

That’s whatcha call the best of both worlds.

And, again, trusting your unconscious AT LEAST AS MUCH as your outline.

The punchline is: your outline has to be written with the full collaboration of your Undermind, too.

Otherwise, it IS all just an attempt to corral your wild process into e-z, pre-fab, entirely-too-manageable bites. This can lead to prose as a pedestrian crossing: nice, safe, thrill-free, and utterly bereft of the unknown.

My operating slogon is this: “The rational mind is a back-seat driver.” It may be holding the map, and yelling a lot, but that doesn’t mean it really knows where it’s going.

Trusting your unconscious is the key.

Training it to dance unselfconsciously, through rigor and rehearsel, is an important gateway to trust.

A trust that must be honestly earned.

That said: I outline almost everything I do, often in astounding detail. It’s called “doing your homework” (or, in film, “pre-production”).

Then I sit down to write the book, or stand up to shoot the film.

And take off the gloves.

Then…IT’S PARTY TIME!!!

Astonishing essay, Justine. Thanks for layin’ it down, once again.

BIG LOVE TO ALL STORYTELLERS!

Yer pal,
Skipp

John,

I wonder if your divergence wasn’t just an evolutionary moment in “the Undermind”? If the outline is conceived in the Undermind, and we have to assume that it is, then the force to be most trusted is The Undermind. If the book seemed, logically, to go one way, but when you reach that point in the yellow wood, it screams at you to TURN LEFT DUMMY – then turning left is what you should do…if for no other reason than that the echo of that “Turn Left Dummy” will echo in your mind with every step to the right, and undermine your ending…might even bother you for the rest of your creative days.

You have to listen to the voices in your head…don’t you?

D

Whatever anyone says…that’s what I meant.

– Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

Brilliant! And thank you for writing it.

The dance analogy echoed my youth. Although I was not fortunate enough to have the sheer volume of training other dancers had, I had enough to train the body, the muscles…it was at that point that I began to feel (sense?) how to really dance. It flew in the face of what my teachers were telling me, but to allow myself to ‘become the music’ consistently resulted in my best and most moving pieces. (I had a chance, had won a place on a choreography course solely on a last minute audition, but I also got a rent hike and lost a job. *shrugs* Couldn’t take the place.)

That was 30 years ago. I took up writing about 5 years ago. “YOU MUST OUTLINE” Yes, I need to think about the story, how it will play out…that is true. But I’ve since discovered that’s just a means of me learning about the world and the people who are taking over my mind. Then I walk their streets and hear their words and I must let me go and become the fingers through which their story is told.

I’m still in ‘training’, still learning…but it’s the same feeling – the sense of everything coming together…

Thank you.

Shell

For the record…

I write outlines so my characters will have something to laugh at later.

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