Saturday, May 7, 2011

Outlines as an Exercise in Creative Exhaustion

Yesterday's rant addressed in very small measure the exasperation that ensues when I've written myself into a corner and have to figure out what went wrong, what went right but I didn't pay attention, and how to get back on track. I'm reasonably happy with my plan to untangle the mess and even more pleased with the nifty connections and plot twists that emerged from the process. However, I did notice how drained I felt afterwards. Excited, but devoid of what my kids call "spoons" -- mental oomph. (Today I am full of vim and vinegar and excited about diving back into the manuscript itself.) I've noticed the same feeling when outlining a new project or even composing a pitch or product description (as for preparing a book for epublication).

I believe I'm not alone in experiencing this little piece of the creative process as exhausting. Let's talk specifically about outlining or writing a synopsis. They're not the same thing, which is another blog topic entirely, but I think they flex the same creative muscles. (I'll use "outline" generically here, referring to both.) For one thing, the product is intensely concentrated. I used to resist writing them by wailing, "If I could have told the story in 25 words or less -- or 10 single-spaced pages -- I wouldn't have had to write 100,000 words!" But outlining is part of a writer's professional activities. I still write stuff  "on spec," but more often than not, I'm likely to sell "on proposal," which means a tightly worded, polished description.

In an outline, all the threads and pieces have to fit together. Yes, there are always things to discover, but every plot element I put down has to work with all the others. This means an incredible amount of "figuring things out." When I'm actually writing the text, I have a feeling of spaciousness (even when the action is hot and heavy). I'm moving slowly enough to be able to hold in my awareness all the stuff I'm setting up, what's active at the moment, what's gone underground, what's being foreshadowed. The unfolding story allows me to discover much of this as I go along. (Of course, if I'm working "freestyle," without a plan, I may well end up taking a flying leap off the edge or reality, but that is both the joy and the risk of writing without an outline.)

Outlining strips away everything but the most bare essentials: it's like a map that shows only the paved roads but every single one along the journey has to intersect. I'd better make darned sure I haven't sent my heroine off on a dead-end road. If I want to her to leave her car and hop on a sailboat, I have to make sure she's on a road that actually goes to a port and that there are ships there. I have to get all this set up and on paper, which means I have to discover it and organize it all at once. If it takes me 2 weeks to outline a novel, it's like writing those 500 pages in those 2 weeks in terms of how the events fit together.

One of the hardest things for me to get right in outlining is profluence. I don't remember where I first heard that word, maybe in a writers workshop. What it means is the inevitability with which one event leads to the next. It's the difference between an episodic story and an overall seamlessly-whole plot arc. When I'm writing text, I can get inside each event and build in that sense of one thing propelling the characters into the next, whether that thing is some part of their own character, their choices and interactions, or whether it's "the way the world works" in terms of logical progression. When I'm outlining, I am woefully apt to sever this driving force with misplaced motives and the tyranny of surface action. Again, in order to get the outline anywhere near right, I have to dig deep, to compress all the examination and weaving-together that otherwise would span many chapters into only a few paragraphs.

I am reminded of a friend from years ago, when I was first starting my career. She was bright and articulate, already had several novels out. Somehow, she got caught in a cycle of writing one proposal after another. Within only a short time, a few years, she felt so drained of ideas that she could no longer summon enough creative enthusiasm to continue. I don't believe she ever sold another book. One of the things I learned from her experience was to respect the effort required to write an outline or synopsis. This is hard, hard work. Not only that, but when I've put so many ideas down on paper in such a concentrated form, I need time and play to "recharge my creative batteries." To allow the well to refill. To feed my muse and keep her happy.


  1. Thanks for 'profluence'. I'm fairly sure I do it, and it's nice to have a word that describes it.

  2. @widdershins, I find it a very useful concept. It gets me out of "episodic" thinking and more in terms of flow.