SONY DSCIn the past, I preferred to “pants” a story. A story bubbled inside me. Inspiration whispered, “Tell the tale.” Immediately, I rushed to the computer. Fingertips tickled a keyboard. The words sang out like a tune in prose. My muse accompanied each sentence, humming softly in my ear.

But the music quickly stopped. I stared at my creation. An imagined symphony looked like turd dropped on a brown bag.  

I fretted and paced.

The characters couldn’t be pushed forward. Every Tim, Dan, and Harriet creation wandered without purpose. Eventually, each lay panting and exhausted by the side of a plot road to nowhere. But if there happened to be a The End, the middle events sagged lower than Uncle George’s wattle.

And all this angst for a short story! If I were to write longer works, like a novella, there had to be another way.

There is a better writing path to travel: It’s called an outline.

Yeah, I had heard of this damn annoying tool, outline. A writer applies the instrument at the very beginning of creating. You first labor over a premise and concept, forming a story’s foundation. Chat with each character and find out if they agree with the groundwork. Then the author constructs a road map of events described in one or two sentences. (Sometimes, he or she writes out a list of paragraphs.) And if the unfortunate soul makes it this far, the outline must then be hammered out: I’m supposed to sweat over the details of story form. Straighten it all out. Tighten it. This “process” could take weeks or months before any prose ever hits the page.

So mechanical! What about the art? What about the creative flow? Tell the tale. I fought myself, battered and bearing figurative black eyes. And a bruised ego. My muse pouted in some dark corner. But my sensible self won the battle.

Good thing, too.

Turns out, all art has a form which underpins a creative work. Story is no different. Authors have applied and evolved this metamorphosing structure since the days of campfire gatherings.

It’s like giving someone a holiday gift. The story outline is a steel or wood or plastic frame. Prose wraps everything in pretty, decorated paper. The reader only sees the finished package under a Christmas tree, twinkling lights dazzling the eyes.

But as an artist, writing an outline is frustrating as hell.

Firstly, I don’t feel like I’m actually creating anything while working on such a mechanical-seeming thing. Get over it! No, it ain’t a pretty package. Not yet. It’s an ugly frame. But patience eventually gets the writer to a finished holiday icon where a happy reader basks in warm cheer.

Secondly, form is rather amorphous. Almost. Story structure changes and evolves. So, studying and understanding earlier works and these previous forms demands more time and patience. But the author’s payday is a learned wisdom. You understand the “rules” and know how to break them within a certain context. And a wise rebel creates a form that might be followed by other writers in the future.

So I’ve just completed two story outlines. And the damn effort required weeks of labor. Judging from their roadmaps, both works are at least worthy of being labeled a novella. Readers should expect each to haunt a horror subgenre, borrowing from a classical form such as gothic tales.

Was this effort worth inflicting angst upon myself? A battle-worn, toothless grin reveals a certain amount of satisfaction and confidence going into draft. Yeah, creating an outline was worth it.