Subcreative Startlement

The division between “outliners” and “discovery writers” seems of primeval provenance, although, for all I know, it may have been formalized and jargonized only recently. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap between these two approaches to creative writing. Most of the writers I’ve queried haven’t had trouble categorizing themselves, and I myself hail from the latter camp: I work sequentially and make stuff up as I go, constructing a lived-in storehouse of narrative material which I continually draw upon as momentum builds.

All my life I’ve been told to outline. From elementary school to high school to college to employment, the expectation has always been that I’ll iterate a finished product into being. In fact, most of my school essay assignments required me to submit multiple drafts along with the finished product in order to “show my work.”

The problem was, I don’t do “drafts.” I write from beginning to end, steadily feeling my way forward toward conclusions that encompass and encapsulate everything which precedes them. I’ve never done it any other way. I don’t know how I would. Sure, I edit the work when I’m done—but what I’m editing is a completed facade, not a scaffold.

So as a student, when asked to “show my work,” I’d just complete the assigned essay extra fast, then reverse-engineer a few dumbed-down “drafts” to make my instructor happy.

Things aren’t much different now. Even when I try my darndest to outline a scene or a chapter, the story only ever comes alive in the telling, when all the minute subliminal nuances of setting and character expression are vivified in active flux. Before I hit “play” and start typing, the story’s just a static image. I can guess what it’ll do and where it’ll go, but my guesses usually suck. It’s in the moment, when a character opens his mouth, that I suddenly know the right thing for him to say.

Case in point: I spent last week attempting to outline my latest scene. I was straining to envision the specificities of various interpersonal conflicts and how they’d affect the plot. I thought I had a pretty okay structure. So I dove in and started writing, and immediately a character started saying something unexpected. I wasn’t quite sure what it implied, but it felt right, so I went with it. And then a lightbulb ignited and I realized what a gift this character had given me—how I could leverage his revelation to ratchet up tension in the plot, and explain various incongruities, and foreshadow future developments.

I never could’ve outlined that. I’m simply not smart enough. I lack the requisite foresight.

But one of the benefit of my shortsightedness is that I’m often just as startled by events as my characters are, which helps me to write them empathetically. Also, it’s kinda thrilling to know I can always be surprised, even in my own subcreation.

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