Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 26, 2012

Conversations with an Outline

When I teach writing, I try to keep in mind that everyone has a different method. Just because I’ve plunged into work without a clear idea of where I’m going doesn’t mean that other people won’t write something great by beginning with a structure. So I offer exercises that focus on developing scenes, wherever they’ll end up, and exercises that ask writers to turn their eyes from particular moments to glance toward beginnings, middles, ends, and back again. A painter has to be very careful about the spot where her brush touches canvas, but often steps back to see how one color looks against another, how a particular shape looks within the frame.

As we near the end of the semester, I asked students to write one through ten, starting with their character’s birth, which is probably going to be outside the narrative frame, and use ten for the last scene of their novels. The other numbers should be key points of action or insight, and again, some may not appear within the story. They had ten minutes. I’m never very generous with time, as we have so much to do. Most found it helpful to take this long view with a rough outline, before going back to early chapters.

Recently, Amy Greenfield wrote a great post called How to Write Fast(er) about picking up speed (noting that speed is relative) while writing the sequel to her novel, Chantress. Her method includes outlining, and breaking away from it.  I’m in the very early stages of the first novel I’ve begun with an outline, albeit one that’s so saggy it flutters in the slightest breeze. I’ve got index cards and maps, but no push pins — I’m willing to let everything slip-slide around as the characters develop, or change from minor to major, or disappear. I’m inviting a sense of structure earlier in my process, but also spending relaxed time with my characters to get to know them, and let them change before my eyes. A sloppy process, and when I’ve tidied some dialog, sometimes I go back to check my sketchy maps. Letting the outline speak to the paragraphs under my fingers, and letting them talk back.

I still write out of order, collecting parts of scenes that don’t belong. I won’t let myself stop until I’ve found them a place. And now my smudgy outline also gives me a sense of safety, like the stack of books at my elbow. People have made their way through. There’s something ahead to keep reaching for.





  1. Thank you for the kind words, Jeannine! I’m glad you found something helpful in them. I think your smudgy outline sounds wonderful, and so does the way you’re using it.

    I know some people work best with detailed, highly organized outlines, but I need something more provisional myself – a rough guess about which rocks I could use to get across the river, knowing all the while that I might leap to an entirely different one once I’m out there in the rapids. (And that’s it’s possible I’ll decide to cross an entirely different river, too.)

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