What I Learned About Writing by Arguing with the White Queen

An image of William Wordworth's house in the isolated hills of the English Lake District. Wordworth, one of the first Romantic writers, personifies the idea of the isolated, romantic writer, alone in nature with his thoughts. This represents only one way of getting one's writing done, yet it is the dominant trope of what it means to be a writer, even today.

An image of William Wordsworth’s house in the isolated hills of the English Lake District. Wordsworth, one of the first Romantic writers, personifies the idea of the isolated, romantic writer, alone in nature with his thoughts. This represents only one way of getting one’s writing done, yet it is the dominant trope of what it means to be a writer, even today.

I’ve been off the grid for quite awhile because I was taking courses from a school in England. Unfortunately, England and I have very different ideas, beliefs and values about writing, and because my beliefs are set in cement, England and I are parting ways.

I had forgotten that England is the purveyor, par excellence, of doing things the way one’s granny did back in the day. Yet the rest of the world has, to a large extent, moved on, and no longer practices, for example, the limitations of Current-Traditional pedagogy’s valuing of product over process, ‘perfect’, error-free copy over depth or meaning of content. To be more precise, of course there are those who hang on to certain facets of Current-Traditional pedagogy, but there are options nowadays, even if not everyone knows they exist or has learned to value writing process theory

Just last week, in merry Olde England, I was dragged into an argument by an unwitting proponent of Current-Traditional theory. Although she didn’t know any of these terms, there she was, espousing the rationale of the Dark Side I’d learned to (mostly) discount a long time ago. Suddenly I found myself inarticulate, unable to adequately explain certain rather simple and otherwise easily explained facts I’ve learned through the years about writing and writers. The irony for me was that virtually everything I take completely for granted as obviously True and Good and Right was being challenged, and because I take the underlying beliefs for granted, adequate responses did not come easily.

Plus I was taken aback at how vehemently my opponent fought her corner; rarely have I ever dealt with someone so little prepared to listen, who was, at the same time, so ill-informed on this particular subject and also so angry and defensive. Typically, when engaged in this kind of emotionally-laden contretemps, the subject is politics, not writing. To me, writing is not a subject to have an impassioned fight about, it’s something to help other people with, and to enjoy in my off-hours, when I’m wrestling with the Greeks and their murderous ways.

I also need to add that this ‘argument’ was not a true argument in the sense that I normally use the word; it was not well-reasoned, with assertions building on each other and proofs offered to defend one’s assertions. It was an argument in the sense that we were mad at each other, and I was particularly angry because I felt rather hopeless in the face of so much old-think.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘old-think’. Back in the days of yore, about 50 years ago or more, when there was no such thing as “process” writing theory, Great Authors were emulated and extolled as virtuous and worthy of highest regard, and no new thinking had emerged for a Very Long Time about how to write, or about what it means to be a writer (let alone who gets to think of themselves as writers). The norm was that people engaging in the task of writing worked on their own; there was no collaboration or discussion or sharing of writing.

The expectation was that if you shared your writing, you would either plagiarize, or you wouldn’t have your own ‘original’ thoughts, and so, to privilege originality, collaboration of any kind was discouraged. This included talking with one’s teacher, which was also discouraged except to ask questions about the subject, but never about how to write about the subject. You were expected to understand the form the writing would take because you’d read essays and such, but there was little-to-no discussion about how one constructed a piece of writing, what has come to be considered the architecture of writing (a term I really should, now that I have raised it, explain further in a future blog post).

And, god help you, no one ever shared their writing during the process itself; to do so was tantamount to handing your ideas away. What the other person was going to do with your ideas, I’ve never been able to figure out, but you were not supposed to show anyone your writing, ever. Since I was raised with this model (educated originally by the British in international schools) I remember it well.

Thomas Chatterton, a rather infamous writer, whose writing and tragic life inspired romantic poets for awhile. I worry that aspiring writers worry that this is what will happen to them if they pursue their writing, but this kid had problems larger than life as a writer could address.

Thomas Chatterton, a rather infamous writer, whose tragic life inspired romantic poets for awhile. I worry that aspiring writers worry that this is what will happen to them if they pursue their writing, but this kid had problems larger than life as a writer could address.

“Originality”, genius, and the idea that only “true” writers can produce a worthwhile product (perfect copy, no errors!) were all privileged over the concept that “real” writing can and does coexist with error, revision, discussion, and inspiration from outside the self (as can happen when you emerge from your garret to talk to others). In other words, writing had long been romanticized as a solitary activity best left to “real” writers—those who sought and found inspiration only from their ‘Muse,’ never made a mistake, never revised, and certainly never needed help. 

If you cannot sense elitism at work here, I can, and for me, that attitude doesn’t fly, Orville. Yet elitism is at the heart of why this woman’s response was so strong and so defensive. Once you remove elitism from writing and turn it into something people can do if they know how, you’ve also removed the cachet of specialness about being one of the few writers who “attain” publication, since not everyone is “good enough” to get published—or so goes the prejudice about writing and writers.

When the rules about writing are held in secret—when the act takes place behind closed doors, where no one can see you perform the mysteries—the elitist rules of who is, and is not, allowed to be considered a ‘good’ writer are more easily maintained.

Traditional educational systems excel at perpetuating and maintaining ritualized rules, based on outdated ideas and practices. Although initially the rules might not have been intended to intimidate, that’s the effect they have, since the fact of their existence convinces many people that they shouldn’t even try to attain the ‘status’ of those who comprehend—and maintain the rules of—the ‘mysteries’. Therefore, these rules are about power, and maintaining ascendency over ‘lesser’ people, which I object to as inherently wrong and undemocratic.  

This is the point at which I become vituperative and bitter, though, so I will move on, since the elitist, isolationist view of the writer is primarily a construction of Modernist and Romanticist devising, and has claimed its share of believers. Sadly, people like Ernest Hemingway, in my opinion, were victims of this ideology’s pernicious untruths about what it means to be a writer.

I don't know if Current-Traditionalists and proponents know this, but an unstated rule underlying their pedagogy declares that above all, seek perfection in your writing. I hope you see the problem with this, but if not, I will write more about the downside to seeking perfection in the future.

I don’t know if Current-Traditionalism and its proponents know this, but an unstated rule underlying their pedagogy declares that above all, seek perfection in your writing.

The gorgon with whom I was caught up in heated debate began her parry and thrust where most people who understand the rules of debate would only arrive at eventually, after the crucial step of hearing out their opposition. Early on in our discussion, though, she informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my argument (not that I’d had a chance to formulate one) was “specious.”

The outrageous suggestion I’d proposed, provoking this umbrage, occurred when I said that it would be nice if students (meaning the two of us, for example) could share our writing with each other, so that we could see what other people were doing, and at the very least, get a sense of the style and format the essay should be in to get a good grade. In my world, this statement is akin to asking if you remembered to buy milk.

For her, asking to actually see her writing-in-process was like telling her her first-born child had just exploded. She went as near-ballistic as I have seen someone who is not a) American in an election year or b) forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh at any time. The amount of defensiveness was rather extraordinary. “Of COURSE you cannot see my writing!” she yelled.

It turned out her writing was about to be published. “You can see it when it’s published,” she declared. Her voice was wonderful, by the way; she had a rich, strong voice, quite beautiful to listen to, with a cultured British accent. Unfortunately, the words coming out of her mouth were making my face go numb, and it was hard to think clearly.

So then she said the most interesting, and also disturbing, thing. When I tried to explain that seeing a piece of published writing rather defeats the purpose for the student-writer, who is still struggling with subject matter and writing format, not to mention teacher expectations, and therefore sees the published piece as the work of an experienced professional, not to mention a professional writer, my interlocutor declared that she was not a writer.

As with the backward White Queen, for whom life is lived in reverse, Alice is told to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I believe she spurned this idea.

The backward White Queen, for whom life is lived in reverse, tells Alice to believe six impossible things before breakfast, an idea Alice is wise to spurn.

Now, this was pretty much the point where my head started spinning, like in the Exorcist, because when you tell me a piece you’ve written is about to be published, but then you tell me you’re not a writer, I can’t make both those statements compute. I did have a fleeting thought that as in Alice through the Looking Glass, I was now expected to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but it was 9 p.m. and I was thinking about getting some dinner, which this woman and her oddly impassioned and defensive response had interrupted.

It turns out that she equates creative writing with being a writer (this is a core belief for many people, I’ve found). I forget exactly what labyrinthine turn the conversation took to uncover this connection in her mind, but if you’re not a creative writer, apparently, you’re not a writer. I responded that there are all kinds of writing, and in each case, whether you’re a technical writer, or you’re a reporter, or are writing an essay that’s just about to be published, you’re a writer.

Ultimately, the interesting thing from my perspective is how this one woman encapsulated so many misunderstandings and antiquated beliefs about writing. These misunderstandings persist even though writing theory has moved on. Even so, it’s clear that not everyone’s thinking has kept up with the changes. The damage that can be done to the psyche of a student who has to contend with the negatives of Current-Traditional theory, however, with its perfectionism and error-free product, discouraging of revision, and power imbalance of teacher expectations and assessment privileged over student learning, is my biggest concern, and one of the reasons I wish I’d been more articulate in this situation.

The key problem for students—a problem which, unaddressed, leads to writing apprehension for too many—comes when the student needs specific help with style, form, or any writing-related issue, but when they seek help, they find that these kinds of concerns are ones that teachers do not willingly address.

This is so largely because the teacher takes for granted that the student should “just know” how to write, since they’ve read the same type of (published) essay over and over. Importantly, too, the teacher doesn’t get where s/he is as an educator if s/he can’t write, and therefore is usually blind to the gravity of the problems students present. This usually means the structure of the writing, as a learning tool, is never questioned by the teacher, but the student is left baffled by the teacher’s expectations, since the student is never allowed to see another student’s work, and cannot write like a professional (published) writer. Where is the model s/he needs to see to understand the work expected of her or him? It doesn’t exist in the Current-Traditional model, and that’s why students in this system fail or grow discouraged and accept lower grades than they deserve.

Students are caught between a rock and a hard place, for they know that teachers have expectations about writing that are not always adequately articulated. Then the teacher has the job—and the temerity—to judge the student’s writing ability, when the student never adequately understood the rhetorical situation in the first place. This is how otherwise good students are left behind, and are too often left with persistent writing apprehension.

Meditation and Ritual’s Role in Non-Pantser Writing

tumblr_ltlpjohcKQ1r2r9kro1_500I have written about the importance of incorporating some form of meditation into one’s writing habits.

The act of meditation itself contributes to mental focusbut also, possibly more importantly, gets you into the habit of calming the mind prior to writing. I cannot write in a chaotic emotional state, and I have spent many consulting hours working with writers who also want to find reliable and easy ways to eliminate mental clutter and/or angst.

Clear Your Mind

The habit of meditation, or, at the very least, clearing your space and your mind in preparation to write, necessarily takes us to a need for a different set of behaviors and beliefs about how we use our time. For example, when I was younger, I remember that I struggled with the concept that it was a ‘waste’ of time not to be able to dive right in to a writing project.

What seemed like an ‘elaborate’ form of preparation made little sense to me. In particular, the idea of wasting time “clearing” my mind or my desk irritated me. Patience was never my strong suit.

However, there is so much more to pursuing a meditative mindset than what seems like the simpler act of preparation, of clearing the path of debris standing in the way—there’s also the more complicated notion of what it means to be ‘ready’ to write. How does meditation feed one’s readiness?

Do I Really Have to Have a Mantra?

Defining the word ‘meditation’ is helpful, since we equate the word with many states of mind. A lot of the time, for example, we’re concentrating on a specific problem instead of actually meditating, it turns out.

When I first started trying to incorporate the principles of meditation into my writing habits, I felt overwhelmed. I am not necessarily ‘a’ meditator in the traditional sense. I’m not good at sitting quietly in a darkened room, chanting ‘om mani pad me um’. I needed to make meditation work, though, since peaceful clarity of mind and purpose is crucial to my health.

So I began to look carefully at definitions of what meditation is. If ‘true’ meditation is a “state of profound, deep peace that occurs when the mind is calm and silent, yet completely alert,” I needed to find a way to reach that state of mind and make it work for my writing.

Unrelated to writing, I often go into what I call my ‘Zen state’ when I consciously seek the inner knowing that comes with a peaceful mind.

At those times, I breathe deeply, keeping my conscious awareness in an alert yet calm state, and though I do not have a mantra and I don’t sit on the floor with my fingers positioned in a mudhra, nonetheless, according to the definition, I have achieved the mental state that is ‘meditation,’ since the ultimate goal of meditation is to reduce stress and stressful thoughts through a process of enhancing one’s clarity and awareness.

Being in a state of conscious, peaceful awareness is a boon to the writer, since it means your mind is open, both to new ideas and also to the possibly buried or otherwise ‘hidden in plain sight’ thought you wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention to.

Here’s The Question For Pantsers

The real question I ask writers though, is how can you access those thoughts if you’re stressed?

Although some people say they prefer to write “by the seat of their pants” (‘pantsers’) the only evidence that this method of approach works is that the person, in a state of stressful heightened awareness, produces words on a page. If that’s your primary goal, the pantsers are fulfilling their numerical quota.

Perhaps that’s good enough for them, but there are serious health ramifications for people who live life in the fast lane, let alone consistently force their body and mind to endure the negative effects of heightened adrenaline and other stress-related hormones that are proven to be dangerous over time. In other words, pantsing is not a viable longterm strategy for writers; not if you want to write and preserve your health.

Using Tarot and Oracle Cards As A Form of Meditation

One strong approach to inspiration through focused awareness I use with clients who are open to it is that of working with a set of oracle or Tarot cards. When used with intentionality, Tarot and oracle cards open one’s consciousness to new types of thoughts and associations you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Obviously, Tarot or oracle cards are intended to further one’s intuition, but they are also capable of inspiring and augmenting inspiration in unusual ways.

My own experience with Tarot and oracle cards is that the very process of clearing my mind, shuffling, focusing, and laying the cards is, in itself, a form of meditation. Reading and interpreting the cards can literally take hours, when paying attention to the details in the cards. Since you’re focused the entire time on one specific question or idea, your mind is forced to make connections it might not have seen any other way.

burning-sageThe Power of Ritual

Tarot or oracle cards are not just a tool to encourage intuition and clarity of purpose; they also provide a way of calming the mind through ritualized practice.

Ritual on its own calms the mind, and if you find no other entry into your writing, the ritual of sharpening your pencils, clearing off your workspace, and straightening your papers can be enough for some people to calm their thoughts sufficiently to create the kind of peaceful atmosphere that makes writing possible.

For the writer who wants to incorporate ritual into his or her process of self-awareness, here are some thoughts to guide you:

In order for a ritual to be fully effective it must fulfill four requirements:
1. It must be intellectually satisfying.
2. It must be emotionally satisfying.
3. It must have a strong beginning.
4. It must have a strong ending.

To be satisfying intellectually, every word and movement must be filled with meaning to you. otherwise the ritual is just confusing and uninteresting. If you have to ask “Why am I bothering with this?” the effect of the ritual is lost.

Emotional satisfaction comes from stimulating or pleasing the senses or the ego. Conducting a ritual is interesting, but unless you have an emotional bond with the subject, the acts involved won’t affect you at a deeply emotional and visceral level.

Falling somewhere between the above two points is the kind of satisfaction that comes from an event with a clearly defined beginning and ending. Part of the power of ritual derives from the fact that, in addition to relating to something significant, it is significant in itself. The more clearly a ritual is set off from all other events, the more impact it has on our psyche and behavior.

Writers who want to develop rituals to clear their minds and space of psychic clutter and debris might consider burning incense, or sage, to purify their working atmosphere. Many Tarot and oracle card readings begin with the ritual of burning incense and/or sage.

How you contain and keep your cards will be part of the ritual as well (unfolding them if they’re in silk or some other protective material). Taking notes as you go, forming the question or questions you’re curious about—achieving a state of calm awareness, allowing you to see everything you’re doing as though you were observing yourself from a bit of a distance—are all part of the ritual.

One benefit to developing a ritual involving meditation is that you reinforce a more self-reflective state of mind which you can make part of your everyday experience. Focused mindfulness, combined with self-reflexivity, creates an alchemical burst of enthusiasm about your project.

Your productivity increases because you’ve got new awareness telling you what the work means. This feels so much better than merely getting words down on the page; it’s about writing something you like, feel connected to, and, most importantly, reflects your deeper truths.

Coming shortly: To see how I recently used the Shaman Oracle deck with a client, please click here to redirect to the Collaborative Writer Course pages.

The purpose is not to do a reading, as much as it is to derive insight and inspiration about the direction your writing can take.

The purpose of using the cards is not to do a personal reading, as much as it is to derive insight and inspiration about the direction your writing (characters, plot, story) can take.

The Advantages of Writing The Bare Minimum Outline

There seem to be two accepted processes when writing a long(er) manuscript of 50-150,000 words (fiction or non-).
If we use the metaphor of a map and a quest, we can say that one approach is to go without a map and discover your meaning, story, plot and characters as you proceed.
The other is to take a map with you, usually in the form of some kind of outline, to return to for guidance, and to see where to go next.

Neither approach is ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ since each comes with negatives and positives. Further, how tight (planned in great detail) or loose (providing only the bare outline of an outline, if you will) your outline “has to be” to be truly useful is a matter for a great deal of discussion, not to mention emotion.

Look at a game board some time and you'll see that it's also a map of a story, telling you what happens along the way. The little images are symbols for

Look at a game board some time and you’ll see that it’s also a map of a story, indicating what might happen along the way. The little images are symbols for “here are the major plot points,” but you can fill in what happens to the characters/playing pieces along the way.

This decision isn’t a matter of ‘throwing out the rules’ if you decide not to use an outline, so don’t think you’re being a rebel, because there are no rules we have to worry about breaking.

We’re long past high school; no one’s coming to snick you on the knuckles with a ruler.

Instead, whether or not one uses an outline has more to do with practicality and need or desire for organization, as well as control over outcome.

If you’re working with a lot of characters and you’ve got a dense plot, at some point, you will find the benefits of making some kind of outline, no matter how rudimentary, outweigh the sense that you’ve somehow been absorbed into the Borg.

Borg-writing means you fear you’ll lose your individual voice, your identity, your very soul, if you give in to the dictates of the outline. Nothing is more dispiriting for the budding writer than to be told she’s going to, at some point, have to have an outline for that project idea she’s kicking around.

I worked briefly with a woman who was having a hard time finding her subject, coming up with a goal, and declaring intention to follow through to the end. When I told her an outline could help her organize her thoughts, she bolted. I think what she possibly heard was “outline equals immediate loss of freedom.” What you can’t hear when you’re afraid is that you actually do have options; that there is freedom within structure, that something as seemingly grim as an outline serves you; you do not serve it.

Outlines Are Threatening

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

Outlines seem threatening to those who see them as unwanted fences built to control the wild mustangs of their thoughts.

Other writers are bothered by the unnaturalness of the outline, the pernickety sense that each ‘i’ must be dotted, each ‘t’ crossed.

If the word ‘outline’ equals ‘stupid rules that make no sense’ in your mind, believe me, I get it.

I don’t always outline, but then, I don’t often tackle multiple story lines and characters, nor do I often feel like my story is either out of control or has gotten away from me (but when I have felt that way, it’s because I didn’t outline sufficiently, so I have been hoist upon my own petard more than once as a writer).

Outlines seem forced, non-organic, emotionally false. It is a kind of pre-writing one has learned, all too often, to associate with high school English classes you hated; a torturous endeavor forced upon you by a cruel teacher with ugly glasses and bad hair. Outlines seem largely unnecessary, particularly for the writer who is possessed of a vision, who is mentally following his or her characters into their personal abyss.

Mostly, I suspect, writing an outline seems far too unromantic, making writing more like work, less like a spontaneous act of inspired creativity.

There are uncontrollable, passionate moments spent writing, moments when you teeter on the edge of Indiana Jones’ rollercoaster ride through the mines, just barely holding on, not knowing how it will end or what will come of your intrepid heroes.

“How can an outline, so restrictive, so horribly predetermined, ever hope to contain those emotions?” one mutters derisively, ruminating (during a particularly powerful and largely unconscious writing session) how empty your scenes of passion would feel if written out in excruciating (not to mention mind-numbing) detail ahead of time. 

Here’s one way to look at this choice: Certain kinds of writing and certain times one writes can be used as the marker to determine which approach you’re going to use.

What should determine whether or not you rely on an outline (checking your map as you go) is the type of goal you intend to reach. If you’re serious about getting published (by a print publisher, as in, holding a finished product in your hands with pages you can turn and a marketing/sales budget and maybe even an advance), you’re undermining your potential for success if you don’t create some form of an outline. (I will explain why further on, since I didn’t outline this article, and now you’re paying the price for my telling you this without any real plan in mind about where this would go or how I would get there.) 

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

Why You Might Want An Outline, At Least Sometimes

If your project is less formal, or you’re writing exclusively for self-discovery, an outline can definitely feel like it will get in your way. What would be the point of working on something so intrusive? If you don’t have a beginning, middle, or end already in mind, and particularly if you’re not writing a genre piece that relies on structure, you really don’t need an outline, although you might want one anyway at some point, depending on the circumstances.

If you’re new to the genre or type of writing you’re attempting, you might want to try an outline. Alternatively, I usually advocate the map-less approach for absolute beginners who are on a search for their subject, or themselves.

As an educator, I will tell you that self-reflexivity, searching for meaning, as well as increasing consciousness and awareness of your purpose and goals, are all enormously important reasons people should write. The mere speculation about ‘who we are’ is often enough to fuel novels, plays, and self-help books. It could be argued that every single word written about the human race (other than writing you find in technical manuals) is an effort to know one’s self, and by extension, the world, better.

E. M. Forster's plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

E. M. Forster’s plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

Speaking of understanding the world better, one of my favorite writers is E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India. During an interview with The Paris Review in 1952, E. M. Forster responded to a question about “technical clevernesses” (what we think of nowadays as the mechanics or craft of writing) like this:


How far aware are you of your own technical clevernesses in general?


We keep coming back to that. People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out—a course of lectures . . . .

Forster liked surprises and surprising his reader; he liked finding something out as he went, and so, in the same interview, when asked if all of the ‘important steps’ of a novel should be present in its original conception, Forster replied, “Certainly not all the steps. But there must be something, some major object towards which one is to approach.”

Referring to the plot of A Passage To India, Forster clarified: “When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar Caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel—but I didn’t know what it would be.”

I think this sums up the feeling most writers who approach writing ‘romantically’ have; they want the thrill of discovery. They don’t want to know too much ahead of time, for their major happiness comes in the moments of discovery. As with explorers and inventors of yore, discovery is its own reward, and there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a great feeling to discover a character or plot point you hadn’t anticipated, to make it up as you go along. 

Finding yourself, finding hidden gems you didn’t know existed, is crucial in the philosophical quest to know and understand yourself, and it’s one I support. Alternately, this process, of writing to know one’s self, seems like a luxury to many writers who tell me they just want to get on with it. They don’t have time to wander about, searching for something they may never find, let alone something that won’t sell, and they’re not going to take the risk that time spent ‘finding’ an interesting character is time wasted; they don’t have that kind of time. 

Although I understand what they mean, I don’t always agree with this perspective, largely because I’m not as interested in selling a product as I am in helping the writer understand him- or herself better (because society already puts us in boxes, restricting our creativity).

Here’s another Paris Review interview with a famous writer, Ray Bradbury, who wouldn’t be tied to an outline:


Do you write outlines?


No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

Don't worry; you won't lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination ahead of time in broad strokes.

Don’t worry; you won’t lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination in broad strokes.

Given that, however, I will tell you that there are many books and/or stories that will flounder and die if you have literally no idea what they’re about, where they’re going, or how they’re going to get there. Although quantification of one’s goals might not seem a compelling priority for the writer on a quest for self-discovery, once you’ve discovered what’s there to be discovered, if you want to finally get this journey down on paper, process it and get it out the door to an agent, an editor, a publisher, you need to know what it’s about.

You need to have a goal, a point on the map that you intend to reach within a certain amount of time, if you’re going to be taken seriously. This will require more than rummaging around in the carpetbag of your mind; it will require form, structure, and organization.

To backtrack just a bit, I must take a moment to say, you can’t get to this point until you know quite a few things about your project. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, though, there are three things all written works have in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Fiction has plot points, while non-fiction usually relies on a kind of enlarged flow-chart made up of bullet points one elaborates on. In each case, a bare-minimum outline will help immeasurably to get from point A to point B and so on, till you reach the end (your goal or conclusion).

The Bare Minimum Outline Looks Like Anything You Want It To, Within Reason

I discovered what I call the bare minimum outline many years ago, when I read a book about how Alfred Hitchcock used storyboards to construct the action in his movies. A movie storyboard transforms the primary action of the scene into an image, but I also noticed that beneath each drawing was a brief summary of what had to happen to make the scene work, to get the story to the next place.

I translated this idea to writing the outline, and found this approach to be the most simple and sensible (not to mention quick) that also leaves space for you to change things as you go. At the bare minimum level, you do, at some point, need to know what happens next. This could be as simple as making a list of events you know have to happen to make your beginning shift to the middle and on to the end. No chapters need be involved; you can decide what to call each section or how to number them later.

What action begins the story? That’s number 1. What has to come next? That’s number 2. Don’t agonize over this; it’s just a list, as though you were planning your day as sensibly as possible to use the least amount of gas to get from one store to the next. If possible, see the actions each character has to enact in your head, like a little movie, then write down an abbreviated version.

You’re taking notes of what you’ve already got going on in your head, but most importantly, you’re giving what’s going on in your head some shape, plus the space to challenge yourself if one piece doesn’t fit into the overall design. This is all done before you commit yourself to the time needed to write formally, literarily, technically; whatever your style, however your voice sounds on paper, with this kind of bare minimum outline, you’ve planned your time at the computer/screen/paper a little bit. Not too much; just enough to get started and know what to expect, like going to the grocery store with a list you might follow, you might not. 

Writing the bare minimum outline is easy if you think of it as a summation of who each character is, and what each scene requires to get to the next place in the story. It’s helpful (but not crucial) if you know your beginning, middle, and end ahead of time. If you don’t know details, you can fill them in as you write. But here’s the thing: if a kid can write a summary of a book, broken down by characters and chapters, so can you. It’s not that hard, which is why it’s good.

Eat Your Peas, They’re Good For You

A bare minimum outline has certain virtues. One, it helps a lot to get your thoughts about each character and scene down where you can see them and wrestle with them a bit. Two, it helps a lot to wrestle with them because maybe that character has no purpose in this particular story, and if you know that ahead of time, you won’t waste valuable space and time writing her if you know ahead of time she makes no sense to this plot, nor does she help any of your other characters—in fact, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Three, you can very easily write yourself into a corner you have no way out of without some kind of outline.

The corner you have no way out of emerges from lack of thinking this plot through. How does your villain fit into the 2nd half of the story now that you’ve got him receiving a coded message from the enemy? If you don’t know what happens next, you might easily get stuck or blocked because you haven’t really thought this through. With the bare minimum outline, however, whether you’ve created a list, a grid, a database, or whatever form you decide to use, remember that you can either cut and paste, or erase and go back at any point along the way. There is nothing that says you cannot modify your notes about each character or each plot point as you go.

Maybe you cannot, for the life of you, think of a way to connect the villain’s actions with your other characters (I have this problem right now, and I outlined him a fair amount ahead of time, but still do not know certain details of his plot). Either leave him for now (choice #1 in my case, which means he’s annoying me in the background of my mind), or write a new piece in your outline to account for the villain’s new actions (too tedious, not going to do it until I’ve sketched other things in). Either way, you are doing your wrestling with a list or grid, rather than with your writing, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

If your time is limited, as it is for most people who are not professional writers who do not also have the entire story mapped out in their heads in some kind of linear flow, the time you spend writing the story, in my opinion, should not be the time you have to wrestle with what happens next. That’s what thinking about the story separate from writing it ‘for real’ is for. Writing the story means when you get into your flow, you get to wax lyrical and use your literary skills to get this said in as powerful a voice as you can, without worrying about details of plot, structure, or does this action make sense for this character, etc.

Remember, though, there are no rigid ‘rules’ you have to follow, and that means there are no rules you have to rebel against. There are common sense procedures that will make your life easier as a writer, though. You’ll know you ‘should have’ made some kind of outline when a character you hadn’t planned on comes out of nowhere and has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular story. You’ll know you need an outline when you have no idea what comes next, because you haven’t thought this through properly—that could have been worked out with an outline. 

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters' names are and what they're there for.

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters’ names are and what they’re there for.

What You Really Want An Outline For Is Invention

Remember: You never have to use the kind of outline you were probably taught in school. If you’re writing because you’re searching for something, you might not know what it is you’re searching for until you find it. This process of discovery can be the most fruitful way to find a gem in the middle of what appears to be an utter wasteland, so don’t give up looking for your oasis in the midst of the desert writing sometimes feels like.

My caveat is that if you think of writing as a linear process, which it’s not, ‘discovery’ comes before ‘planning’. This mistake, either in how you were taught, or in how you now think about writing, works against you, often stopping you from writing at all, since we get caught up in worrying about “what should go where when,” rather than writing whatever comes to mind and shaping it when it’s ready.

What you sacrifice is the entire process of Invention, which is elastic enough in modern writing process theory to include outlining (but you’ll have to forget the rigid, five-part outline we use to teach argumentation—if you confuse the two, you’ll be miserable).

The word ‘invention’ comes from an older word borrowed from the Classical Rhetoric term, Inventio, and it has a specific use: to help you find your argument and determine the best structure for an argument. Extrapolating to other forms of writing, invention, a very liberating place to be, is where you’re at whenever you do something (take notes, make a list, answer questions about your characters) that indirectly aids in getting your piece written and helps you figure new things out; brainstorm ideas; renew inspiration.

Further, in Classical Rhetoric, Dispositio is where you shape your argument; it’s where the use of a formal outline comes in, and this is why you a) hate the idea of an outline and b) misunderstand the need for an outline because c) of what you were taught to think is true about outlines. I completely empathize, as someone who has both taught formal Rhetoric and written fiction, but even so, I can promise you that the real problem is that if you never got a chance to outline informally, you won’t know how liberating an informal outline can be.

Creating, sculpting, forming, and shaping seems like you’re “in the planning phase” (a thought I want you to erase from conscious operating memory). Instead, realize that writing a loosely structured outline aids invention, since the fact that you’re asking yourself questions during this process forces you to think, and plot, and plan. Don’t underestimate how important it is to find out what you’re writing about—what your subject is, why your characters are there, what your ultimate purpose in writing the piece is. Don’t assume you’re not finding your subject by writing an outline, because you are.

Are you ‘planning’, ‘discovering’ or ‘inventing’ when you’re writing some form of an outline? You’re doing all of these at the same time. This is why linear models of writing don’t work, and must ultimately be abandoned; they’re limiting, creating false constructs we can’t use because they’re so misleading, not to mention self-destructive.

Do you need to know every facet or detail of your project before you sit down to write? No. You do not. But if you never know any of this at any point—never become aware of what you’re doing or why—we’ll end up discussing you in writing classes some day, and we’ll use the word ‘unconscious’ and the phrase ‘unaware of his own process’ a lot, and we’ll be sad.

A conscious writer has greater control over his or her writing, and can replicate the process again and again, which is a powerful feeling that will ultimately make it easier to get paid or in some way rewarded by the outside world, if that’s your goal.

Nothing wrong with being lost.

Nothing wrong with being lost.


When I think about the discovery/invention part of the writing process, though, a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings comes to mind:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

In other words, the ‘perfect’ outline isn’t necessarily the answer to your problem, since writing and self-discovery is its own reward, and those who don’t know what the hell they’re doing are not necessarily wasting their time.

Writing the outline is part of the plot line of how you will write your piece. If I ever create a game that encapsulates the writing process (which I might; just wait) writing an outline will be an event of its own, something you should do for the experience of using it to work out your ideas, to fight with your characters over their inherent purpose, and to create some kind of order to your plan. Whether you want to or not, consciously or not, you’re even now planning your piece somewhere in your mind, and transferring that plan to the ‘written page’ can be extremely useful.

There’s nothing wrong with organization, when it comes at the right moment in your writing process. It’s my experience that you will be happier if you write some kind of outline at some point in your process. Think of it as the oasis you can go on the map of your story to rework your ideas, re-imagine plot points, find out which characters fit and which don’t; find renewed inspiration for a scene or chapter you were going to give up on; and come to know, without a lot of doubt, what happens next.

How to Avoid Writing (Almost) Your Entire Life

Florence Ma. The Writer's Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Florence Ma. The Writer’s Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Michael Gruber says that if writing taught him anything, it was how to get used to failure.

The first book this writer published under his own name was at the age of 61. He says he avoided writing due to “a simple lack of confidence.” In the following interview (see below), Gruber explains his personal background and the forces that shaped him as a novelist. The key is that he didn’t identify himself as a writer, nor did he believe he was capable of being a “real” writer.

In other words, this man speaks to everything I’ve been studying for the hundred or so years I’ve worked on the underlying reasons for profound writer’s block, the kind that prevents you from writing for more than 45 years. I know from experience that this man’s perceptions and feelings are not unique, having listened to this story from writers at every step of the process. That’s why I so fervently believe these fears can be overcome, with the right kind of help, because why would you want to struggle with this alone? 

This interview comes via Author magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (of which I am a member).

When To Run From Your Writers’ Group

I appreciate this writer’s perspective on when a writing group isn’t going to work for you. It takes time and experience to recognize these warning signs; the writer, Kiki Terrell, has plenty of experience, it sounds like. It’s good to have independent verification from the writing world that others see things the way I do, though.