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Outlining, shmoutlining

When I wrote The Monster’s daughter (and its sequels) many moons ago in Japan, my entire “outline” was as follows:
Girl has vampire dad.

Plot? Nope. Character sketches? Nope. Character names? You guessed it: Nope.

In contrast, I had a plan for the YA urban fantasy novel I’m writing now. I wrote it down, tweaked it, thought on it, tweaked it some more and started writing.

The first thousand or so words totally cooperated with my outline. Everything was I envisioned it. After that, however, things started breaking down. My characters almost immediately began clawing and gnawing their way out of the boxes I’d neatly fit them into, so that by 5,000 words, I found myself frustrated by their orneriness. Newsflash, characters: I’m writing the story. Not you!

One of the things especially frustrating to me was how quickly the perspective I’d envisioned fell away. The way things were shaping up at 5,000 words left me feeling like I was being unfair to one of the key players in the story. So I asked my buddy Mack, am I being unfair? And, furthermore, how the heck do I fix this?

She replied with a complex, brilliant assessment, which included two core points:
(1) Roughly, “Keep writing, silly, because you’ll never get this sorted out if you sit around agonizing over it!”
(2) Exactly, “I think it’s because you said merpeople that I’m thinking in these particular terms, but the best example I can think of is the film of HELLBOY, which I’m sure you’ve seen. The story’s about Hellboy, we see the world through the lens of his experience, and it doesn’t diminish the fish-dude any (okay, it’s maybe diminishing that I don’t remember his name) that he doesn’t get equal screen time. Because if he did, it would be boring. It would be like, ‘And Hellboy could’ve DIED, srsly! And then that fish-guy sat around and read a book. And then Hellboy jumped off a building and had emo lovelorn angst! And the fish-guy said something funny. For an equal amount of time.'”

Mack, Mack, Mack, where would I ever be without you?

In addition to answering the specific question in a way that made me laugh and move on, her response enabled me to see the question wasn’t just about perspective. It’s about control. It’s about me deciding I want things to go one way and forcing them to go that way, even if–with very good reason–they don’t want to.

Getting around this mental hurdle took likening it to my work life. In the IT world, a project manager addresses a specific problem by identifying its components and finding, then implementing, a solution that corrects that problem. Even with copious planning at the front end, that project manager is going to find new facts along the way that will change how she has to implement her solution to a problem. (Often this will come from one of the project’s resources going, “Wait, what? No, what we needed is x.03, not x.031! It’s right here in this email . . . oh, um, I meant to include in the email, anyway!” Pretty please see here for a giggle-inspiring, totally accurate visual about project management.) She still has a mostly viable sketch of her solution’s implementation. The solution itself remains mostly unchanged though the path to reach it now includes a few hurdles and at least one pit of rattlesnakes that must be safely passed over to reach the project’s successful conclusion.

It’s unrealistic to assume that any project–whether IT, writing-related or personal–won’t change at all while it’s underway. Life is full of moving parts. If the project manager is doing things right, she’ll see what’s changing and respond to them sooner than later rather than trying to sledgehammer her initial solution into fitting new facts. If a project manager’s stuck in an old paradigm, she’ll throw her hands up in the air, ditch the project and go start a new one, after having a bunch of beers.

Writing, it turns out, is like project management, which is like life. If you start out with a plan you’re willing to constantly revisit and tweak based on new facts, you might find a different end result than you first anticipated . . . but you’ll get where you’re going, eventually. And maybe, just maybe, like in the movie Threesome, the detours and asides you took to get there will be the best parts of all.

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