About the Post

Author Information

Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Going “Outline Commando” to Avoid Writer’s Block

going-commando“Excellent!” was my first thought when I read the title of Brian Klems article Six Secrets of Writing a Novel Without an Outline. I had found another writer willing to go “outline commando.” (Why I think outlines don’t work)

“Absolutely!” I thought when I read Secret #3 Follow Rabbit Trails:

“It’s inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.”

Klems and I were perfectly aligned. For decades I’ve observed how hamstringing the imagination and leaving no room for the spontaneous insights that arise from the unconscious is one of the biggest limitations of outlining a novel or memoir.

But when I read Secret #4, I recalled what Robert Olen Butler said in From Where You Dream about how drafters (like Klems) are just as doomed as outliners.

In Secret #4, Klems writes:

“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

It’s a paradox.

And that’s part of the fun.

I find it helpful to discard the idea of a first draft and think of writing the entire story as an integrated whole. As you pay attention to the choices your characters make and let the implications of their choices play out on the page, you’ll find yourself writing your story forward and backward at the same time, weaving in narrative elements to create your work intuitively rather than mechanically.”

It’ll Work But…

too_many_choicesYou can do it the way Klems describes (he details the method in Secret #6). It’s just so hard and time-consuming.

Your brain will be significantly challenged by the cognitive load of holding an entire novel of memoir as “an integrated whole.” You also have to constantly struggle with the uncertainty and confusion of “writing forward and backward at the same time,” which can cause serious resistance and avoidance.

Klems is right about your imagination’s ability to skip around in the timeline of a story and that being the fun part. The challenge arises because language is linear and at some point you have to stuff the time-skipping paradox into sentences and paragraphs.

Have you ever tried to restuff a feather pillow? You have if you’ve tried to draft a novel without any structure or direction. Your imagination, like feathers and tufts of down, floats everywhere.

The other drawback to going “outline commando” the way Klems describes it is that you spend an awful lot of time drafting your way through rabbit trails and tangents that never lead anywhere. Eventually you’ll have to delete pages and pages of your first draft.

I don’t know about you, but I resist doing that because I’ve fallen in love with those scenes. Cutting them really hurts! And because our brains are wired to avoid pain, our willingness and ability to move forward with revisions is impaired.

The Only Way Through?

brain canstockphoto8956548 (2)If this was the only way to find the unexpected insight that changes everything for the better (what Klems calls the “breathtaking outlook”), I’d be willing to do it. For years, that’s how I did do it.

But I believe there is an easier, more effective, less frustrating way to write a novel or memoir: the dreamstorming method Butler describes in From Where You Dream.

In dreamstorming, you go into a writer’s trance and allow possible scenes to unfold in your imagination in no particular order. You show up and see what comes to your imagination on that day.

You capture the essence of those scenes in a sentence fragment on index cards. You refrain from drafting so you don’t prematurely lock in your imagination and miss other story and character possibilities.

After you’ve imagined all the scenes you can envision (somewhere around a hundred), you use the cards to discover the structure of the book. When you draft, you know where you’re going. (more about how and why dreamstorming works)

I agree with Klems that it’s vital to work intuitively, not mechanically. Butler’s method gives you that without so much uncertainty and without needing to delete pages and pages of rabbit trails.

I’ve used Butler’s method to complete a novella and will use it to revise my novel (which has sat on a shelf for years because I didn’t use Butler’s method to draft it).My coaching clients and students have used it to complete novels, and one client is now drafting her memoir from her cards.

I know the method works, which is why I teach it in my Entering the Flow class at the Loft. The class gives you something From Where You Dream doesn’t: guidance as you practice moving into the imaginative flow and learn how to intentionally and consistently enter the writer’s trance/flow state.

Class starts Monday. If you want to give going “outline commando” a try, I’ll see you there! If you don’t live in the Twin Cities metro, you can go “outline commando” in the online version of this class in the spring.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Comments on “Going “Outline Commando” to Avoid Writer’s Block”

  1. Joel D Canfield October 23, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    I’m working on something sideways from here (though I really need to integrate dreamstorming.)

    Larry Brooks talks about telling your story in 9 sentences; hitting the critical waypoints any novel must contain, then leaving the interstitial spaces to serendipity and spontaneity.

    For fiction, I don’t want to outline. But I also never again want to start a novel without knowing how it’s going to end. I don’t think I produce my best work that way, and though I don’t often say it out loud, I don’t think anyone else does, either.


    • rosannebane October 23, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      I don’t produce my best work without some idea of where I’m going, either. I’m hoping the dreamstorming in this fall’s Entering the Flow class will pave the way for the revision I’ll start on my novel retreat in January.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: