Monthly Archives: February 2015

Dr. Bulletpoint or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Outline My Stories

If you’d asked me what kind of writer I was just a few months ago, I would have said, without reservation, that I was a discovery writer.  (This despite the fact that, in a loose way, I had outlined much of the novel I had written a few years earlier in Wikidpad.)

Now, though?  Well, for one thing, I’d say that outlining and discovery writing are not a binary, one or the other, but a spectrum.  Like gender.  The very act of writing an outline is indeed an act of discovery writing.  More to the point, though, I actually learned how to outline effectively by being made to outline a story (actually five stories, though I’ve only written one of them so far) in Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop.

Previously, I would just sort of plunk away at a story, generally going from one idea to the next, and if I was very lucky, I knew the general shape of what I was building towards.  And that method can still work for me.


(And this is a big “but,” which I like, and cannot lie.)

But this method presupposes that I have all the time I want for my writing (or that I have a deadline—in undergrad, deadlines were generally a pretty effective way of getting me to finish a story).  I don’t now.  I have a full-time job.  I have a family.  I have many obligations, and I must shoehorn my writing into the crevices between those.  And if I can sit down and have an outline telling me where I’m going next, I won’t waste as much time noodling and staring at an empty page wondering what the fuck I’m going to write next.

This covers the “why” decently, but not the “how” of outlining, or at least of the outlining process that I learned from Mary.

The how starts with a sketch.  A hundred words, give or take (at least for a short story), that covers the basic beats of the story, beginning, middle, and end, along with which MICE element(s) come up.  During the workshop, I managed to bang out five of these in about an hour and a half, with a little twittering and cat-wrangling in the middle.

From the sketch, I pretty much went straight into a bulleted list with each point being a beat of the story (plot, character, emotional).  This is the stage where I can really start to work out the problems of the story; the initial sketch is just the shape of the story, but this is where the detail starts to emerge.

From the list of story beats, then I make another list, with each point being a distinct scene in the story.  If the first ~100 words were a rough sketch of the shape and the first list was starting to pencil in the details, this next list would be the next stage of pencils if not an initial inking.

What Mary suggests, following this scene-by-scene breakdown, is to make a copy of this list and stick it in the live document you’re writing in, and then remove sentences as you actually write those parts of the story.  While this may seem too rigid of a process for some people, I’ve found that it still leaves me plenty of freedom.  Just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean that everything you write must follow it to the letter.  (I will say, however, that if you find yourself diverging too far from your outline as written, it might be prudent to re-outline the as-yet-unwritten parts.)

Will this process work for 100% of people 100% of the time?  No.  Nothing ever does.  But this works for me, and it might work for you, too.

Of MICE and MFAs

In the course of something else entirely, I stumbled across my notes from when I attended the 2011 MFA Winter Residency at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College.  What stuck out to me from those notes was something a professor had said on the subject of poetry: “You know you’re getting to the end [of a poem] when themes from the beginning start showing up again.”

My notes revealed, further, that this was said to be true of poetry moreso than of fiction, that it was an indicator of the poem’s coming to an end, since, unlike in fiction, there is rarely some large ending action in a poem.

I think that in four years of studying writing in undergrad, this was the only time that anyone really talked about endings.  I know that I learned a lot about writing in that time—if you go looking, you can find some of my old writing, pre-college, and while it’s not the worst ever, it is painful for me to look back on—but I don’t remember talking much about the mechanics of stories.

I don’t know a whole lot about poetry.  It’s not my thing.  I can appreciate a good poem, though “good” is, of course, very subjective (I think moreso than with prose).  But I just wrote this thing down, four years ago, and forgot about it because I didn’t have anything to connect it with.

Mary Robinette Kowal, in her workshop, teaches a variation on the M.I.C.E. quotient.  I’d heard about it before, chiefly from Writing Excuses, but I’d never really gotten it before that workshop (if you’re reading this, thank you, Mary!).  As someone who works with computers and studied programming, if not computer science, in both high school and college, the idea that you have to close every element, be it Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event, that you open, and, critically, in the reverse order of their opening (<M><C></C></M> rather than <M><C></M></C>, for instance) in order to make your story work right resonated with me.

And that’s what that person was talking about in that classroom in the basement of Jensen four years ago.  They probably didn’t know it.  My experience with that MFA was often one of “genre” fiction being very much second-class, only occasionally able to “transcend genre” and reach the level of Art.  I doubt that anyone there had read Card since high school, if ever.  I very much doubt that there was a secret class about M.I.C.E.

Nevertheless, they hit the nail on the head, and not just for poetry.  You can tell that a story is coming to an end when the questions/problems/whatever raised at the beginning are finally coming to a close.  And if it goes on after that last element is closed, or if it stops before closing that element?  Well, that’s what revision is for.

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