Every writer and proto-writer has an opinion on this subject, so I guess it’s my turn to add my two cents.
I was taught to outline in my Creative Writing class. Pick a story, decide on some characters, then pin the idea to an outline, like a butterfly fresh from the killing jar. (Can you see the drift of this piece already?) That is how “proper” writers do it. I managed to create stories in that class, got an A, and thought I knew how to write. (Ha ha.)
Once out of formal education and into the real world of bills, working, grocery shopping, laundry, and managing relationships, I produced weak ideas, half-assed character bios, and rough outlines. There was little to no actual writing. I realized I wasn’t a writer. Life went on.
Then I had a dream so intense I frantically wrote it down. It was so in-depth it took nearly a week of scribbling during every free moment, ending up with a weird beast of half outline, half chapter summery, and half micro-scenes. (Yes, three halves equals weird beast. Picture a chimera.) I had written down interesting dreams in the past, but dream journaling wasn’t a habit, and certainly nothing of this length. But still, it pulled at me, seduced me, waking me often at 4am–two hours early– so I kept digging, going deeper into the story, the world, the characters. Weeks tuned into months as I wrestled with its form, including a graphic novel script. Eventually, I woke from the intense daze, with a organized daily writing regimen, and staring at the first draft of a novel.
Shit. I am a writer.
It was crap, but the good kind of crap for a writer. The kind of crap that said it was getting better as I worked with it, relearning lost skills, and adding completely new ones. There was a good story under all that crap, like a very hard poo-stone, I just had to remove enough stone, sometimes with a sledgehammer.
My earliest hammer was Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I was given permission to just write, get it down, then see what it was. Sometimes “proper” writers do that, and make money, too. No one had ever told me that! He became my spirit guide–probably making weird faces behind me–as I continued to write daily, and reading as many “How to write” books as I could get my hands on. The writing regimen was much better than being woken at 4am by dialogue. (Shut up. Shut up! SHUT UP!!)
Another early hammer was Terry Brook’s “Sometimes the Magic Works.” Here was a “proper” writer, with advice on outlining that was so familiar, and comforting, and completely not something that works for me. But he told me something my teachers never did. He freely acknowledged that it wasn’t the only way to write. Writing was the most important thing. The only thing. His gentle suggestion that outlining after the rough draft was done, to clarify the story–and especially if there was a road block to finishing–was gratefully received.
Somewhere in the mental cage match of Stephen “The Wild Man” King verses Terry “The Organizer” Brooks, I found a balance point. The raw story, outlined for revision, gives me a handle on the storytelling. Do I have good, three-dimensional characters? Is the story hitting the key points of the journey? Have I provided enough description? Is there natural themes and symbolism that can be refined? Did I start with a hook, and end with satisfaction? If the answer is yes, proceed to next level, clean up and line-editing.
My two cents for new writers?
Does outlining fulfill a need in your brain? Start there, but don’t stop there.
Do you prefer to be surprised by the story? Go on that adventure with your characters, but when you get home, take a hard look at the storytelling.
Just write. Keep writing, in however way your mind finds satisfaction in the act, because writers are idiots. We are willingly doing homework as a hobby, at least until we are getting paid for it.