Getting Organized: Why Can’t I Make Outlines?

I have this vision of my perfect life. Everything’s quiet. Everything’s paid for and taken care of. I do only what I want to do. So what do I want to do?

I want to write stories. I want to get up every morning and have no other obligations besides returning to my novel to pick up where I left off yesterday.

I’m not there yet. I worry about how to pay for things. I don’t have a bunch of books that I’ve already written that have earned me a good living. I do, however, have a lot of story ideas.

Also, I have a plan for making this perfect life possible. I don’t know if it will work out as I intend it to, but I’m trying. Or at least I think that I’m trying.

I need to write more. Every day I tell myself how “Now’s the time to rule your passion. Write something today.” In spite of this, I seem to spend more time talking about the idea of writing than actually writing. Writing this out makes me realize that I am, in fact, talking about writing right now.

I want to be a writer, and there’s only one way to do it: One word at a time, one word after another. Keep it up for long enough and you’ll write an entire book.

Why can’t I seem to do this? I have this plan to apply to a prestigious creative writing program, but I can’t even finish the piece I need to use as part of my application. Why do I suck at organizing my thoughts?

Maybe I’m doing it wrong. When I get an idea for a story, it hits like lightning and I get a rush of excitement. Nothing else matters. I need something to write on, NOW!

I’ll get up out of bed and start tearing apart my office in the dark until I find a pen and paper. I’ll refuse to turn on any lights, terrified that waiting for my eyes to adjust from the darkness will take just long enough for my newest “great idea” to be lost. I’ll scribble out the idea in the glow of my bathroom’s night-light. I’ll return to bed, relieved that my idea is safe; confident that I’ll be writing my book first thing tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow comes, but instead of writing the story I’m working on something else. Months later I revisit the scribbled idea and have a lot of trouble reading my notes. Even worse, I hardly understand what my story was supposed to be about:

guy re meeting up w/ friends from college he is supposedly really smart got 4.0 like all his friends and ex girlfriend now that he’s older he can’t figure out WTF to do w/ his life dating an attractive bimbo hangs around w/ her cause makes him feel smart working a shitty job doesn’t admit it to his smarter friends regrouping w/ old pals to make a film feels envious of their accomplishments always asking Q’s opens with awkward phone call 8:00 of silence recognizes ex gf’s mom but she doesn’t recognize him google’s phone number to find out ex gf 4.0 dual major graduated in 01 means got undergrad degrees in 2 years 4.0 later find out she did academic overload and latched into studies to get away from main character after a broken heart. likes pushing his buttons, somewhat awkward, still admits she has crush on him, he doesn’t feel comfortable around her. too smart for him, inferior. film is being created at the college, animation of music video senior project. duct tape marks placement on escalators and rails like they have in airports for film effect looks like multiple people twins appearing in same shot all doing different things different paths in life (drawing of stick figures on airport people-mover) one friend is successful at computer application, rich and bored and brilliant. ex gf is not necessarily wealthy but is doing exactly what she wants to be doing w/ her life and is therefore extremely happy. quotes to mention within conversation “do you feel embarrassed to tell people you got a 4.0 in college? you don’t regret getting all straight As? I think employer might view me as some impossible to hire perfectionist. ever hear about the suggestion that you are the average of the five people you hang out with the most? if you find that you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re probably hanging out in the wrong room”

I have a bunch of these “would-be stories” that have never developed into anything meaningful. They appear randomly, and consume my whole attention for a fleeting moment, and then die the next day.

My writer friends have asked me, “Well, what’s the story about? What happens?” They talk about their own strategies for creating stories, many of which start with a simple outline.

Outlines. The bane of my existence, or my hidden arch-nemesis? I can’t write them, because if I start to try to write out a general synopsis or overview, I am forcing myself to realize the truth: I don’t know what my stories are about.

I try the Stephen King approach to story-telling:

  • Put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation.
  • Use common sense to determine the character’s actions.
  • See how things play out.

This strategy has never worked for me, as I still have no finished story to show for it — and yet I can’t seem to even try and write any other way.

I’m not Stephen King. I really want to be, but I’m not. I need to figure out my own strategy that works, and exercise more creative self-discipline.

I tell myself it shouldn’t be this hard, and if I truly want it, then I’ll do this — but with each passing day that I fail to continue writing an ongoing story, I worry more and more that I might not make it. The deadline is always approaching and I need to stop messing around.

Truth is, I need an outline. I need direction. I need to conquer this simple task in order to proceed. Just something quick and dirty, so that my storyline is relatively planned, to give me an idea of where my story is going. Having that, and knowing where it’s going to end, could be the simple detail that leads me to a successful story — and hopefully take me one step closer to the perfect life I’m aiming for.

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2 Responses to “Getting Organized: Why Can’t I Make Outlines?”

#1 Jill on 20, Sep, 2011 at 9:09 am

Do you have “No Plot? No problem!” on your resource shelf? I don’t think your problem is that you can’t write, you don’t have the ideas, you can’t put a plot together, etc., it’s that you’re afraid of writing crap. I did the 30-day novel challenge with the help of “No Plot?”. What helped me get through it was checking the inner critic at the door and just writing for the sake of getting the first draft done. I think the book says something about how it doesn’t really matter if aliens suddenly come down and kill off a character (and your story is a romance set in 1865). The point is to keep writing, keep moving forward. Go back later and fix what needs fixing. I found that this really helped open up my mind to different plot ideas and let the characters become their true selves instead of just someone I could like. Keep going!

#2 Eric on 22, Sep, 2011 at 6:52 pm

As someone who has made it a step past you (two finished novel-length first drafts, one that I’m pounding into a second draft right now, and a spate of failed drafts) there’s something missing.

Writing gripping fiction is hard, and hard things are something we aren’t trained to do anymore. We expect everything to be perfect the first time.

I have friends who wrote 9 drafts of their novels. Three is the smallest I’ve heard, and even there the first draft is uniformly awful. My current second draft throws out the entire second half of the novel. It just isn’t interesting enough, and isn’t salvagable. But I had to write it through to see that, something an outline may or may not be able to show.

Make an outline, then tear it up. Write what you remember. Just realize that your outline isn’t the story, and your first draft isn’t the story. Always be willing to throw anything out — that isn’t failure. The only failure, if your goal is to be a writer, is to not write.

The fearlessness to put something on paper, no matter if it works out or not, is the key to getting through a draft.

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