Here it is, almost the end of January, and I'm still thinking about beginnings. I'm pretty sure that's because I'm mulling over how to start a new project.
From a recent NPR interview with one of my heroes, Elmore Leonard, here's how the great man sits his story down:
"I have no idea where it's going to go. I don't want to know, because the idea is accumulated in the four months, five months, six months. . . of the writing process. You get better ideas while you're writing. Ideas come to you, scenes come to you that (are better) than if you were to sit down and list scenes. So I don't outline."
The "to outline or not to outline" argument is one writers have long grappled with. And not allowing rigid A, B, 1, 2 scaffolding to dictate to creativity has always been my instinct, too. I didn't outline either of my two previous books and when I finished them I was convinced that lack of early structure helped, rather than harmed, their narratives. The ideas did arrive just as Mr. Leonard said.
And, I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going when I began my latest project, a memoir now in the hands of my editor. Not because I outlined it first, but because, well, I lived it.
When you're writing from your own experience, my logic went, it's even more impossible to get off track than when you're telling someone else's story. Stick to the truth, mine your emotional highs and lows, and, as Mr. Leonard also advises, "leave out the parts that people skip."
Do all that, everything is sure to turn out just dandy, I reasoned. Outline? I don't need no stinkin' outline.
Revisions, though, have a way of picking up the glare the warm sunshine of just writing away, free and easy, without a care in the netherworld of your imagination, misses. I ended up crafting a detailed outline after I finished the first draft.
It was a good exercise, and helped me identify both the cuts and additions the book needed in a way my own "just sit down and write" process had not.
So, despite the advice of Mr. Leonard, I've reconsidered the value of outlining a long work first, before beginning to write. I'm starting to believe outlining will organize my creative impulse, not stifle it.
Writer and writing teacher Adair Lara has a great article about how to do this here. Good advice for those of us writing about our own lives, particularly if, like me, you have previously eschewed outlines.
January feels like a great time to sit down and dig in to something new, doesn't it?