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CRAFT

Preparing to Write: Outlines in Fiction Writing

James McNulty

March 15, 2021

Let’s start at the beginning. The creative oil is burning; you’ve sat at your desk ready to write, and what stares back at you is the writer’s worst enemy: a blank page. You don’t quite know what you want to write about beyond an idea, a kernel of something (be it an image, character, plot, circumstance, theme, etc.) that possessed you suddenly and demands to be fleshed out. It wants to be written; it needs to be written. So you try to write it, but all you have is that kernel, a beginning. You begin writing anyway because you’ve heard that outlining the story beforehand stunts creativity. About a quarter of the way through that first draft, you decide to change the sex of your protagonist; by time you’ve written a third, you’ve finally nailed down your topic, which is the arena of your theme (you’re still a few drafts away from finding out exactly what you want to say about that topic—your theme), but now the first third of your writing doesn’t reflect your newfound interest in that topic; halfway through the draft now, you discover that the logistics of the plot aren’t quite right and you’ve written yourself into a corner (after all, how could you pay proper attention to the logistics of the plot while you were still trying to nail down the character’s voice, among other things?); if that wasn’t bad enough, you realize towards the end of your story that you’ve been writing in third person when you should’ve written it in first person. By the end of that first draft, you have little more than an inspired mess; you’ve written what you have heard is called a “shitty first draft.”

Granted, this hypothetical scenario, in which a writer changes course this often through the drafting process, is a worst-case scenario, but if you’ve ever written a story on impulse, you know of these troubles or troubles like them. But what if you had a soft-spoken guide holding your hand as you made your way through these uncharted waters? What if, during that very first draft, you weren’t tied down by logistical problems and foundational decisions? What if they had been made beforehand, so that you could pay attention to crafting beautiful sentences, fleshing out the interiority of your character, and sculpting the scenes without having to worry about where the plot is going or who your character is? What if you could focus a little more on the execution rather than solely the origination?

Being prepared isn’t foolproof. You’ll still have to revise; that is the business of a writer. You’ll still have to course-correct; that is the nature of creativity. You’ll still make mistakes, but you’ll make fewer of them. With any luck, your first drafts will be more considered and thoughtful than they have ever been before.

Understanding Outlines

When I mention the word “outline,” a bevy of visualizations and concepts may come to mind. You may imagine a written summary, a character breakdown, a timeline, a bulleted list, Roman numerals and subheadings, a concept map, or something else entirely. All of these are valid types of outlines, and one of them is bound to work better for you than another. What may come as a surprise, however, is that a good outline doesn’t necessarily need to be written down in any of these forms. A good outline can be entirely in your head; think of outlines more as just being prepared. For some, it may be wise advice to never bring your outline near a piece of paper; you never want to feel like your outline is a set of rules that you’re forced to play by. Simply put: if the outline feels at all constraining, you’re doing it wrong. But we’ll get to the possible pitfalls of outline crafting later; for now, let’s try to define it.

Oxford Dictionaries defines an outline as “a general description or plan giving the essential features of something but not the detail.” I’ve already mentioned one clarification of this definition: that the outline needn’t be written at all. A second clarification is that the outline can be created at any point, to varying levels of success. You can craft an outline before the project, during, or even after having created the first draft (in order to improve the quality of future drafts). If you’re primarily a short story writer, I’d recommend trying out all three to see which works best for you. If you’re a novelist, I’d recommend the first two—because crafting an outline is foremost an attempt to see the whole of the novel, and while it will be useful to make one after writing the novel, you may find larger structural problems that could have been addressed sooner had you crafted this outline before or during the drafting process. You don’t want to have to scrap hundreds of pages because you realized too late that they aren’t working.

Many famous authors of masterful works have done just that: D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover from scratch three times; Gustave Flaubert wrote 4,549 pages in the process of writing his 370-page novel Madame Bovary; Leo Tolstoy supposedly rewrote Anna Karenina five times. One could argue that these trashed pages were a necessity or that the author wouldn’t have been able to create these masterworks without first going through this lengthy process of drafting. But, if that’s the case, what do we say to those masterworks that didn’t take so many drafts? What do we say about works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which were heavily outlined? That they could be better if only Joyce and Heller had written an extra 4,000 pages like Flaubert? No; we can argue that only as much as we can argue that Flaubert would have wound up with just as good a novel on his first try had he outlined. Both of these claims move into the territory of speculation. The most we can say with mild certainty is that, had Flaubert and company outlined, perhaps they wouldn’t have written quite so much that ended up no further than their wastebasket. Perhaps an outline would’ve stopped him from running into whatever issues caused him to trash thousands of time-spent pages.

Greatness can be achieved with or without outlines; what outlines do is help you save time and energy by subverting potential problems before they occur. Time and energy are commodities, rare and valuable. If Tolstoy had not written Anna Karenina five times, but only twice, perhaps Tolstoy would’ve had time to write an additional masterpiece.

Why Outline?

If, as the Oxford definition specifies, we’re to delegate the general decisions to the outline, then we should focus on the details while we draft. Having the general issues sorted out releases our attention to deal more thoroughly with the details. Quite frankly, there’s a lot for the writer to keep track of while drafting a story: the distance from the character, the character’s voice, the narrator’s voice, the plot, the exteriority and interiority, the sentence structures, the tense, the person, the structure, etc. It’s near impossible to consider all of these things simultaneously with each sentence you write, and common sense tells us that paying attention to too many things diverts attention from each one of those things. That is to say, if we’re not distracted by what we’re trying to say in a sentence, we’ll have more attention to give to the construction—the how—of that sentence; if we understand the character when we sit down to write her, we’ll be better able to capture her interiority; if we understand where the plot is going, we can focus on how to get there, rather than trying to figure out where “there” is. In essence, the goal of an outline is successful segmentation—to reduce that lengthy, ever-growing list by half so our attention isn’t spread quite so thin as it would be otherwise. With that list reduced, we’ll be better able to funnel our creative spontaneity into the details of the work while not having to worry about the big-picture elements.

With any luck, this can lead to fewer drafts and revisions. 

Outlines are for working out big-picture problems before they arise; they can often lead to less cutting and rewriting. When reviewing short fiction at Driftwood Press, I’ll often get stories that have far too many characters, a clearly slapped-on ending, or serious thematic inconsistencies. If the writer had outlined the story (before or after that first draft), she might have spotted many of these larger problems. Seeing all of the characters, plots, and themes laid out helps you analyze them from a distance. In long stories especially, it’s easy to write yourself into a corner; what’s tougher is working out of that corner without having to rewrite your entire work. The same could be said of thematic inconsistencies; oftentimes, a writer will discover midway through her draft the types of ideas she means to focus on, and the second half of the work will be more confident and focused on achieving those thematic goals. This sense of confidence in the writing (ever hear of the compliment “confident prose”?) comes from the writer fully knowing and understanding what they’re doing. Though outlining is far from the only path to confident prose, it is one way towards understanding your story enough to write confidently.

If the general, foundational issues are what call for an outline, novels seem to demand an outline more than short stories. The need for some form of an outline is directly proportional to the length of a story. In Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers, Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren say, “When we have an outline written, we can see the story as a whole, even at a glance. […] It’s a way of keeping hold of a great slithering mass of prose, of keeping track of days and months, of remembering what happens in each plot or subplot” (91-92). Without a doubt, time, plots, and subplots are harder to keep track of in novels than they are in short stories. One of the most complicated novels I’ve read, Heller’s Catch-22, demanded an outline so that the author could keep the many timelines and characters straight. Readers even go so far as outlining Heller’s novel by hand as they read it, in order to fully grasp the nonlinear narrative and multitudes of characters; likewise, there is a map of Ulysses online drawn by Vladimir Nabokov so that he could keep track of where Leopold and Stephen are in each chapter. Not every novel is as complicated as Catch-22 or Ulysses; there are outlines of books far more simple. William Faulkner famously wrote the outline to A Fable on his office wall. A simple Google search will reveal handwritten outlines by J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Normal Mailer (Harlot’s Ghost), Henry Miller (Tropic of Capricorn), and Sylvia

Plath (The Bell Jar). Some of these outlines are clean spreadsheets (Heller and Rowling’s); some are organized by date (Faulkner, Rowling, and Mailer’s); still another is in the form of a diagram (Miller). James Joyce typed an outline for Ulysses that unfolded like an accordion—extending several pages wide. There are plenty more outlines in Google searches and archives everywhere, and we can only wonder how many were kept in private. Whether novel outlines have been made by remarkable authors isn’t debatable, but publicized outlines of short stories are far more scarce. One that often pops up alongside the others is Jennifer Egan’s outline for “Black Box.” Perhaps the fact that the amount of published or available novel outlines far outweighs the amount of published or available short story outlines indicates that most of what I argue in this essay will be far more applicable to novelists than to short story writers.

My Method

It’s important to remember that writing an outline isn’t a surefire method to writing a pitchperfect first draft. There is no surefire method, and there probably isn’t any pitch-perfect first draft. There are plenty of other factors to consider; sometimes, no matter how much you’ve outlined a story, you still can’t figure how to get it just right. I’ve written chapters of my novel after outlining them, only to look at them days or months later and realize that I needed to rewrite them completely. Outlines are a tool; they help, but they aren’t all you need.

My method is similar to Eudora Welty’s, as detailed by Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Burroway begins by describing the act of outlining.

You think through the sequence of events of a story or drama; the points of an essay; the verse form of a poem. Then when you have an outline roughly in mind (or written down in detail), you start at the beginning and write through to the end of a draft. Do not underestimate the power and usefulness of this method. […] Eudora Welty advised a story writer to take walks pondering the story until it seemed whole, and then to try to write the first draft in one sitting. (220)

I’m working off an outline even for this essay; I craft an outline for everything I write.

Oftentimes, it’ll take me a month just to work out all the complexities of a short story. In “The Habit of Writing,” Andre Dubus claims he doesn’t write outlines, but he does percolate; I’m similar to Dubus in that we both “gestate: for months, often for years.” Baxter seconds this idea in his craft book Burning Down the House: “It is sometimes necessary to be silent for months before the central image of a book can occur” (175). The most important lesson I have for young writers is that they shouldn’t rush their writing. Remember, Hemingway only wrote five-hundred words per day.

When the story finally “seems whole,” I sit down to write, and the first draft usually comes out in one sitting. This is because I know where the story is going and I’ve already considered how to get it there. Every so often, I’ll surprise myself in the moment of crafting by thinking of a new route the story could take, and if I think it’s worth doing so, I’ll follow that route. What was important about the outline is that it gave me a sense of the story; it allowed me to “ponder the story until it seemed whole.” That sense of wholeness is the most valuable thing the outline has to offer; it doesn’t matter if parts of the outline are abandoned along the way.

Writers Against Outlines: The Possible Pitfalls

There are different levels of outlining: you don’t necessarily need to work on the outline for a month before you write the story. You could write the outline and then write the story that very same day (though I’d personally recommend giving the ideas more time to percolate). What matters is that you’ve considered the story thoroughly before you place the pen to the paper. My method is only one of many; it is a slow method that favors binge writers. I once worked on the outline to a screenplay for over seven months, then wrote the first draft in little more than ten days. My outline for that project consisted of a scene-by-scene breakdown, detailing everything that needed to happen in each scene. As I wrote, I added scenes that weren’t in the original outline and deleted some that were; one character started developing in a way that wasn’t included in my outline, so I started to work on new places for his character to go. But overall, the outline served as the soft-spoken guide I needed. I didn’t need to ask the big questions (e.g., what happens next?) when I was writing. Instead, I could fully focus on the believability and naturalism of the dialogue; I could focus on how to make each scene work, rather than being distracted by what the scene was going to be about.

It’s important to note that there are many writers who are opposed to outlining. That’s because outlines (like fiction writing) have many possible pitfalls; there are methods of outlining that risk suppressing creativity and limiting imagination. Much like real pitfalls, however, they’re easy to avoid if you know they’re there.

DON’T OVERWRITE

In 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, Jane Smiley says, “When you begin to write your novel, you know enough about your material to begin it, but not enough to finish it. As you write, you learn about what you are writing” (221). This seems an inarguable point: you learn about your novel as you write it. This quote is also an unintentional warning against overwriting your outline. I’d never recommend writing too comprehensive an outline before you start to write the story; you’re bound to figure out a lot about the story as you place words on the page no matter how detailed your outline may be beforehand. The story will inevitably change from that initial outline, and you need to be open to that change. The longer, more detailed, and more comprehensive your outline is, the warier you’ll be to break away from it; if you decide to change course midway through, you’ll be afraid to do so because it’ll morph your whole outline, making what you have useless. This sort of overbearing outline will trap you. Don’t become a slave to the outline; don’t grow attached. Keep it at arm’s length.

DON’T PROCRASTINATE

Smiley also makes an important point with a story taken straight out of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

M. resolves to begin his own career (in writing) by setting aside in advance whole days in which he will commence (“it was better not to start on an evening when I felt ill-prepared” [210]). It seems like a good plan, except that he doesn’t ever commence, instead finding more and more excuses to put off what he has been planning. Within days he becomes so discouraged that he snaps at his grandmother when she inquires after his “work.” (205)

This story doesn’t disprove the usefulness of outlines, but it does highlight another possible pitfall of planning: it can be used as procrastination. What this story shows, Smiley claims, is that “writing is writing, not planning. The sooner you put words on paper, the happier you will be” (206). And while most writers will agree that planning isn’t writing, her assumption that we’ll be happier once we start drafting is only partly true: outlining can often be just as satisfying. My own greatest moments of satisfaction come when I’ve just written a very good sentence and when I’ve come up with a great idea to put in my outline.

DON’T OVERCOMMIT

Possibly the most important advice for crafting an outline is that the outline should never be considered finished until the novel itself is finished. An outline should be open to change at any point in time. In Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft, Ryan G. Van Cleave and Todd James Pierce quote Tom Hazuka:

Most of the writers I know would be hard-pressed to finish anything if they had to know the ending before they started.  Having a preordained ending in mind, while sometimes comforting, can also be limiting: the writer might put on literary blinders and rush straight toward that ending, instead of being receptive to fascinating side trips and unforeseen possibilities. (292)

The type of writer that Hazuka describes isn’t “being receptive” to unforeseen possibilities; that’s far more a personal problem than an inherent problem of outlining. It is entirely possible to have a loose sketch of a story and its themes while remaining receptive to “fascinating side trips and unforeseen possibilities.” Stone and Nyren take a more flexible stance on this; they address the option of updating the outline during the drafting process: “Some writers outline (specifically or vaguely) beforehand, change as they write, and update their outlines (which may be several pages long) frequently” (91-92). A popular thought among student writers is that outlines hamper creativity; what they fail to realize is that writing an outline is itself a creative act. It doesn’t inherently stifle creativity as many claim; if it does, that probably means that the writer is sticking to the outline too stringently, when it should be used more as a jumping-off point or a soft-spoken guide. If the writer allows it to change as the draft continues, as Nyren and Stone suggest, it will always serve rather than hamper. 

I suspect the idea that outlines hamper creativity derives in part from the use of timed prompts in writing classrooms. In a timed prompt, the writer is asked to write impulsively (without thorough thought and consideration). Writers who work themselves into this sort of habit run the risk of auto-writing—of unconsidered writing. My argument for outlining isn’t only practical, but philosophical: when the writer dwells on a story more thoroughly, when the story has more time to percolate, develop, and become complex, the resulting first draft is inevitably more considered and thoughtful than it would’ve been had the writer plunged in unawares. My suspicion is that, if students were encouraged to outline, they’d grow accustomed to putting more thought and consideration into their stories. By encouraging timed prompts, we have encouraged impulsive writing when we should’ve been encouraging just the opposite.

The problem of over-commitment isn’t original to outlines; often, a writer will become too committed to her first draft. In fact, the shitty first draft is the most popular form of outline these days; I call it the accidental outline. By writing the first draft in order to “figure out” the story, characters, and themes, a writer often ends up producing a first draft that needs to be thrown away—one that can only be used as little more than a jumping-off point for later drafts. Had the writer written an outline, I suspect her first draft would need a less extensive rewrite because some of the problems that arose in the shitty first draft would have already been spotted and circumvented. Many students end up committing to this shitty first draft; they’re willing to move or change parts of it but are often too afraid, lazy, or unaware to realize that the process of making art necessitates rewriting. But in many cases, a total rewrite is what should be called for; it would be very difficult to draw out a great work of fiction from what was once “a shitty first draft” without first rewriting much, if not all, of it entirely. That said, this is a valid form of outline for those who are able to disregard their initial draft; though I will warn that it’s the roughest form of outlining I can imagine—so much so that it nearly defeats the purpose of outlining by being excessively timeconsuming and potentially less effective. Nonetheless, some authors have difficulty formulating a story unless they’re in the process of writing it, so they need to feel their way through the story with rough drafts until they’ve figured it out. Then they go back and rewrite the work, more firm and confident in having outlined their final product with those first draft(s). Raymond Carver worked this way; he took a story through twenty or thirty drafts before he deemed it finished. 

All of this is to say, simply, that it’s true: there are plenty of possible pitfalls in crafting an outline. But all of these dangers and more are present whenever you place a pen to the page, and the possible benefit of an outline will often far outweigh these potential hazards.

How an Outline Could Look

With any luck, I’ve convinced you to give outlines a try, but now you don’t know how to start

or where even to begin; reading a defense of outlines hardly helps with the act of writing one. As I mentioned earlier, outlines come in many forms, and it can be a difficult process of trial-anderror to figure out which of those forms works best for you. But it may be helpful to have a quick example to wrap your brain around how written outlines can look. Let’s take a glance at a few brief scene outlines that I wrote before binge-writing my screenplay, Tiger in the Woods.

SCENE FOUR: Quiet scene of Mira eating breakfast and listening to a voicemail from her [dead] son.

[…]

SCENE SIXTEEN: Mira sits in church and listens to a sermon; we hear a few minutes of the sermon before her father sits down next to her and says, “You’ve been coming here for years and you still don’t believe?”

These outlines are bare-bones; they’re a jumping-off point. They set the premise of the scene and allow me to flesh out the particulars (e.g., What is Mira’s son saying on the voicemail? Where does the conversation between Mira and her father lead?). This method is similar to Hemingway’s; in his Paris Review interview, he said of For Whom the Bell Tolls, “I knew what was going to happen in principle. But I invented what happened each day I wrote” (53). Judging from this quote, it sounds like Hemingway relied on an unwritten, bare-bones outline similar to the one above. He understood the premise (“what was going to happen in principle”) but created everything beyond that as he wrote (Hemingway was a minimalist in both his writing and his outlining, apparently). 

Despite including my personal outline here, I want to reiterate that there isn’t any one correct form of outline; an outline’s usefulness or hindrances come down to the individual using it. For example, I find keeping the themes in mind helps inform the rest of the writing, but many would argue, as Charles Baxter does, that if the “writer has decided what her story is about too early and has concentrated too fixedly on that one truth” (26) the story could end up feeling overcontrolled and staged. George Saunders admits to having once been one of these writers in a video interview, On Story: “So I’ve learned that about myself—that I will tend to over-manage a story.” But this isn’t true for all writers; some are able to have that “one truth” in mind while distancing it enough so that it doesn’t overwhelm the entire text. Discovering your best individual process and figuring out what particular elements you should and shouldn’t outline is a personal, sometimes difficult process of trial-and-error.

What to Outline

To keep the trial-and-error to a minimum, I’ll attempt here to define what I would recommend you outline. The healthy disclaimer, however, is that these points will be easy to disagree with; as I’ve just stated, different methods work for different people. I only offer my own methods here in hopes that they’ll get you started.

GENRE

One of your first considerations when you sit down to write is the genre that you’re writing in. Are you writing poetry or prose? Stage directions or general description? Lines or paragraphs? We’ve all heard anecdotes of the short story that turned into a novel or the short film script that turned into a feature film script. But how about the dialogue-heavy short story that should’ve been a stageplay? Or the film script that should’ve been a graphic novel? Figuring out your genre might not be as obvious as you’d think. Many writers only consider the genre that they’re more experienced in; they fail to consider what the material itself calls for. Deciding on this as soon as possible is important; you don’t want to finish a screenplay only to discover that it was far too interior—that it needed to be a novel instead.

TENSE, PERSON, AND DISTANCE

Several articles written by many contemporary writers (William H. Gass, David Jauss, and Philip Pullman) warn us of the unfortunate surge in present tense among student writers. And yet all of them concede that there is a time and a place for present tense; they only argue that it needs to be warranted—called for by the text. I would make this same argument for every element of fiction, including person and distance.

Many writers work on autopilot when it comes to person and distance, choosing only what is most comfortable to them. An unfortunate trend in unpublished fiction is a lack of consideration for what the story calls for; often, the wants of the author supersede the needs of the story. Part of the reason for outlining is to get a sense of the story, to ponder it until it feels, as Welty says, “whole.” Once you have this sense of “wholeness,” you’ll be in a better position to determine what distance you should take at any point in the story as well as what person to use.

To my mind, the foundational elements discussed so far are apparent in their need to be considered before the drafting process. If you don’t have a genre, person, or tense, how are you going to write a single sentence, which will inevitably call on a showing of all three? One of them may change as you start drafting the story, but at the very least you’ll need to make preliminary decisions before starting the first draft.

POINT OF VIEW, CHARACTER, AND VOICE

As you write the interiority of your point of view character, you’re bound to figure out more about the character than you ever could while outlining, but that doesn’t mean that an outline isn’t a great place to start forming your character. It again comes down to having a sense of that character’s “wholeness” before you begin to write. The more you understand your character, the better equipped you’ll be to write from his or her perspective. If you understand the character from the get-go, that character’s voice will have a better likelihood of remaining consistent throughout your first draft. The writer will have greater confidence in how the character speaks.

You don’t necessarily need the voice down pat before you sit down to write—it can be shaped through the writing and homogenized through revision—but you should have a general starting point. Sitting down without understanding your character or her voice produces flat, automatic prose—a voice that is more yours than your character’s.

PLOT

Conflict and its manifestation, plot, are significant elements of fiction that shouldn’t be overlooked while outlining. Many writers have argued for decades that conflict is the driving force of any story; they’ve argued that it is often what keeps your readers engaged. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that many writers demand that conflict arrive promptly.

For this reason, even some of the staunchest opponents of outlines confess to at least partial outlining of their plot or driving conflict. Andre Dubus harangues outlines yet confesses that when he sees “the first two scenes, I begin writing.” He mentally outlines the first few scenes to give the story direction and focus—a starting point. Granted, this is only a partial outline, but this is a good compromise for those wary of outlines. Not planning the plot at all risks making a story that feels aimless and adrift—one that doesn’t actually start until the writer discovers the conflict on page three, if at all. Some stories, of course, demand this sort of slow-burn but most don’t, so it’s important to be wary of accidental plotlessness and lack of conflict.

Depending on your project and sensibility (specifically, whether or not you’ll lose interest if you generally understand where the plot is going), it may be useful to outline the plot beyond those first few scenes. We’ve seen prior examples of complex work that were thoroughly outlined. How complex is your work? Are you writing a densely layered text in the vein of Catch-22? More complex works demand a more thorough outline of the plot, but less complex works may benefit from a steady guide as well. 

THEMES AND SYMBOLS

I’m in the vast minority when it comes to outlining themes. Most authors are steadfast in their belief that both themes and symbols should originate and develop 100% organically, but I’d argue that symbols should originate organically and themes should develop organically. 

When it comes to themes, I’m not arguing that we should determine our entire thematic argument for a novel before we write the first page (that would be what Baxter calls an “overcontrolled meaning” [33]), but I believe that we should outline a topic and a rough, preliminary theme—a starting theme. That theme then develops, morphs, and complicates organically during the drafting process. This way, the writer, the novel, and the reader all start off with a vague notion of the theme, and then see it develop as the story moves forward. 

In terms of longer projects, there’s also a practical use in knowing the theme before you get started. Knowing the theme beforehand allows you to be better able to foresee whether the theme will keep you interested enough to pursue it at length. 

I do hesitantly agree with the majority of writers who decry outlining symbols. Symbols will generally sprout from your initial theme as you draft; an exception that comes to mind, however, is when the conception of your work comes with a symbol attached. 

The development of symbols, on the other hand, can happen less organically. If you notice a recurring symbol part way through drafting, you may find it useful to jot down notes in your outline about its general meaning. Then, looking at your outline, you may find opportunities to work the symbol in.

Preparation Complete

There are plenty of dangers in outlining just as there are plenty dangers in drafting, but the potential reward—a more cohesive work that needs fewer rewrites—surely makes outlining worthwhile. Leaving the work of fiction entirely to improvisation and revision isn’t the necessity that so many claim it to be. 

The underlying implication of this essay is that time, thought, and gestation are just as important to writing a good work of fiction as spontaneous creativity; but this is an opinion, impossible to study or prove. My argument isn’t that you should value one more than the other, but that you should find a balance that works best for you and thereby discover a way to write with both spontaneity and control.

Works Cited

Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2008. Print.

Brady, Tara. “Losing the Plot: Fascinating Collection of Notes, Diagrams and Tables Show How Famous Authors including J.K. Rowling and Sylvia Plath Battled to Plan out Their Novels Beforehand.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 19 May 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Boston: Pearson, 2015. Print.

Gass, William H. “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense.” The New York Times, 11 Oct. 1987. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Grauman, Brigid. “Madame Bovary Goes Interactive.” Prospect. Prospect Publishing Limited,  4 May 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21.” Interviewed by George Plimpton. The Paris Review, 3 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Jauss, David. Alone with All that Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2008. Print.

Marshall, Colin. “Vladimir Nabokov Creates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Open Culture, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

Martin, Kirsty. “Modernism and the Rhythms of Sympathy.” Google Books. Oxford University Press, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

“Outline.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web.

Pullman, Philip. “Philip Pullman Calls Time on the Present Tense.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Saunders, George. George Saunders: On Story. Dir. Tom Mason and Sarah Klein. Vimeo. Redglass Pictures, 27 Oct. 2015. Web.

Smiley, Jane. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. Print.

Stone, Sarah, and Ron Nyren. Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. Print.

Turner, C.J G. A Karenina Companion. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Van Cleave Ryan G., and Todd James Pierce. Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft.

New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print.

James McNulty holds an MFA in Fiction from VCFA; he's been managing fiction editor of Driftwood Press for nearly a decade.
Every spring, Grist welcomes submissions of unpublished creative work for our ProForma contest in fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and/or hybrids that explore the relationship between content and form. Our contest is open to all forms of literary expression. “Pro forma” often means an established way of doing things. For the contest, we look for work that makes the most of its form, whether that’s an essay that breaks from traditional expectations, a set of poems from a sonnet sequence, a short story that blends or bends its genre, a hybrid text or a genre-less piece. However you define the relationship with form in your writing, we want to see your best work.

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Alizabeth Worley lives in Utah with her husband, Michael, and their two sons, just north of BYU where she received an MFA. She was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals award and her essays, poems, and illustrated works have appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.

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James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the spring of 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, New World Writing, The Ocotillo Review, Illuminations, CutBank, The Raintown Review, Flyway, Saranac Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.

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