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  • 07 | In praise of shitty first outlines

07 | In praise of shitty first outlines

And maybe second, and third ...

After writing three outlines (for two books), I’ve come to realize that the “write shitty first drafts” advice can stand to come a bit earlier in the entire writing process.

As a hybrid plotter/pantser speculative fiction author (a “plantser,” I suppose), I definitely need an outline for my novels. I often go a little off-script when writing, depending on where the characters tell me they’re going to go. But initially, I can’t confidently write without a good roadmap.

So maybe this is why outlining always fills me with some measure of dread. I just take it so seriously! I remember outlining the first iteration of what became Seeker of the Lost Song, a process I thought I would knock out of the park during one coffeeshop visit. In actuality, it took three coffeeshop visits (and three Power-Up Breakfast Bagels, there’s always a silver lining) - and even then, I didn’t have a complete outline. Seeker was a bit of a weird one since it went through several iterations in the early stages before it became a book I could write.

I wrote anyway, but that feeling of stumbling around in my outline as if I were in a dark room with my arms out in front of me remained for a long time. There were large gaps, entire chunks where a chapter would contain not a plan but a: “¯\_(ツ)_/¯”. I knew I would run out of road soon. (Simile + metaphor in the same paragraph = my toxic trait.) It wasn’t until I was able to outline each chapter that I felt confident about the book.

With my new, post-Seeker book, the one I described as “nebulous” in my last newsletter*, I’m feeling shaky. A little. Well, medium shaky. I have a pretty solid handle on the world and the conflict, and the major characters. But it’s that damn outline! It mocks me. So many gaps! I’ve got most of the main story beats and all of Act I, but much of it is yet to come.

I’m practicing being okay with that. I know from experience now that the rest will come, and I can feel the full story forming around me even as I worry that it won’t. I try and remember that feeling of complete rightness, those pieces sliding into place as I finally outlined Seeker, and how even after that near-euphoric clarity, the characters took the story to different places than I’d planned. Outlines aren’t published novels, despite the importance I tend to give them.

Any anecdotes about outlining, whether in solidarity or in confidence-bolstering, would be welcomed!

*In the last newsletter I also very confidently stated I would need “a solid day” to outline it, let us all laugh now at the hubris.

PS, what I’ve been doing:

Ugh, the end of the year, you know? It’s so tempting to spend a lot of time rolling around in my brain, analyzing the year and assigning meaning to everything. There’s value in that sure, but I can easily go places that aren’t necessarily good. And when there’s SAD to contend with at the same time, it can feel like a lot. I’m trying to do more in-the-moment things, take it easy on myself, focus on coziness and finding things to enjoy about the early dark. Post-dinner meandering drives with tea and Heilung, for example. Perfect.

I hope you all have a restful and cozy end of year, and a Happy New Year!

Thanks for reading,
- Sg.

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