Deep Work Experiment: Week 5, or how I learned to tolerate outlining

This week has had a pretty abysmally low word count (hello, summer cold) but something amazing did happen. You guys… I outlined my novel.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 5.27.25 PMAn honest to god plot outline!

Confession time: I’ve never been good at outlining. It’s one of my (not-so-secret) writing coach shames. Students will share details of their elaborate outlines with me and I’ll have to confess: it’s not something I usually do. On the plotter to pantser scale, I know firmly what side I come down on.

It’s curious because I actually love talking about plot structure and narrative arcs. It’s one of my loves in literature. But somehow the act of sitting down and meticulously planning out my plot before I wrote my way into the story? Totally inconceivable to me. It seemed boring, like something a teacher might force you to do in school without offering any clear benefit. I just want writing to feel fun. 

Of course, there’s not actually very much that’s fun about staring at your notebook, having painted yourself into a plot corner and not knowing how to fix it. There’s not a lot that’s fun about that agonizing feeling of being ready and willing to write but not knowing what to write next. And there’s certainly very little joy to be felt in rewriting the same scenes over and over, while you try to figure out what happens next.

There’s lots of things I like about my looser approach to plotting – most of all, I like the sense of surprise of following a story, of hunting it down like a detective. I suspect it makes the plot less predictable because, hey, I certainly don’t know what’s happening. And on the other hand, it’s also not as if I have ever worked completely without an outline – I usually have a vague sense of the direction my story is heading in, and the key beats I want to hit.

But there’s also the cold hard fact of this being the novel I want to finish, and potentially take further, out into the world. My old techniques weren’t working for me and I felt as though I was floundering. And so I pulled up a chair, dug through the 17,000+ words I’d written so far (did I also mention I don’t write chronologically? I like to keep things nice and easy, that’s for sure) and sat down to create an outline. Three cups of tea and a couple of hours later, I had one. Sure, it’s sparse in places (I get a lot less detailed the closer I get to the end), and there’s plenty more information to be put in as I do research and explore the scope of this story but… it’s an outline!

I feel like without the principles I’ve started practising the past few weeks as part of my deep work experiment this might never happened: tolerating boredom, taking on difficult tasks, working through problems… these are skills that cultivating a deep work habit have helped me to develop.

And now I get to get back to the fun part again!


4 thoughts on “Deep Work Experiment: Week 5, or how I learned to tolerate outlining

  1. Kat

    I’m on the fence about outlining – not whether or not I should do it, because I absolutely should – but whether or not I enjoy it. Mine is just bullet points of all the events taking place in the story, but your method of outlining looks interesting. How do you format it?

    1. ailsaclare

      Thanks! Across the top I have plots and subplots, plus a column for historical notes and other notes, and then going down I have scenes and rough dates of the action. I ended up looking at a few different styles, but this seemed to allow me to capture all the different things I had going on in my piece in the most effective way.

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