When I was a nonfiction writer, I remember being a little nonplussed by the obsession emerging writers had with established writers' processes. In interview after interview, successful writers were asked, "What time of day do you work? For how many hours?" and inevitably, "Do you work from an outline, or not?" Writing nonfiction, for me anyway, was a relatively straightforward process that didn't beg these kinds of questions, particularly with regards to an outline. OF COURSE I wrote an outline! It helped that when I wrote my first (and only) book "I Do But I Don't: Why The Way We Marry Matters," the structure came fairly easily. It went something like this. "The Proposal." "The Ring." "The Dress." And so on until, "The Wedding." Not terribly inventive, but effective all the same.
When I began writing my first novel, however--after the initial, thrilling burst of words I rushed to the page when the concept first came to me--I started to panic. How would I find the structure for this story? How would I organize the jumble of thoughts, characters and scenes churning through my head? In the outline I wrote for my nonfiction book, I was helped enormously by the fact that I was making an argument in each chapter, organizing research and interviews I'd done to support ideas being laid out, I hoped, with clearly defined logic. But as I began to think about my novel, and even though an over-arching plot (of sorts) was in my head, its details were murky, its characters ever-changing, and its specifics as slippery as a trout in a mountain stream. I would try to get hold of them, but then I'd start actually writing, and everything would change.
And pretty soon I wanted to ask every writer I knew: "Do you work from an outline, or not? (Tell me, dammit! What do I do?)"
There are so many answers to this question, and, as any experienced writer will tell you, they vary as much as writers do. But I got great advice from a friend of mine who has completed no fewer than six books, and who has an approach to writing I completely admire: practical. "Do a paragraph per chapter," she said. "Quickies, just capturing things. Really take your time on it though. Make it an important part of your process. Finish it before you start writing again. Then, as you write, you can add to it, take things out of it, and change it around."
And that was what I did. Sitting down to write that outline six months ago, I felt like I was taking my first real step towards writing a novel, rather than just putting a bunch of words (no matter how witty and beautiful they were) on a page. And then, outline in hand, I started writing. And I sort of followed it. And then I didn't. And I didn't. And I didn't again. Today, Brooke Warner, who is my editor with She Writes Press, asked me if I could send her my outline, since she could help me more if she knew where the book was going. "I have an outline," I said, cautiously, "or I had one. But now it's sort of...old."
I am planning to update it. To try to envision, carefully and deliberately, what the next half of my book will bring. But part of me wants to avoid it like the plague. I am going, so shouldn't I just keep going? I may not know what's going to happen in the next hundred pages, but I know what needs to happen next. As in the oft-quoted E.L. Doctorow line about writing: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
So today I ask you -- how do you make the trip? Do you outline? When? Before you start? In the middle? And how? Paragraphs? Roman numerals? What? And if you have an outline, do you stick to it? Experienced (and inexperienced) writers, please, I need to know. I am obsessed with other writers' process, because I am still trying to figure out mine.