Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Lucy Jane Bledsoe on How Not to Outline a Short Story

In the 39th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of Lava Falls (University of Wisconsin Press), discusses her disorderly writing process.

People love to ask writers if they plan their stories, write outlines, know the endings before they begin. Though some find this question tedious, I enjoy it because I have not yet resolved the answer for myself and always welcome the opportunity to reconsider my process. The truest answer I can give is: um sort of maybe sometimes, but not really.

I’m a fairly tidy person in most parts of my life. I like a neat living space, the piles in my office are squared up to the corners of my desk, and I make lots of lists for all kinds of activities and tasks. I love schedules.

But when it comes to writing stories, I’m completely unable to plan. My process is exceedingly messy. And I think that is exactly why I love doing this work. Writing fiction takes me out of my comfort zone and into an emotional wilderness, where if I pay careful attention, some of the truest, most beautiful, most elegant connections are made.
Leaving the comfort zone

When I try to write an outline—and god knows, I’ve tried so many times because it just seems like this would be a better way to write a story, and certainly a faster way—the relationships among ideas and characters and scenes feel contrived and artificial. I’m forcing links and motivations, rather than discovering them.

I love spending time in geographical wildernesses for the same reason. There’s a purity to the interconnectivity of all living things, and the nonliving environment in which they thrive, when the natural order hasn’t been disturbed. Walking without trails is much harder, but has its rewards, including discovering the complex and true relationships among all the players.

So my writing process is the messiest part of my life. I glimpse a character, a moment, or sometimes just an idea that I want to explore and I set out in pursuit. The irony is that I almost always try to write an outline, or something like an outline. But as I struggle to figure out which scenes need to be included, and in what order, or god forbid plot points, I quite quickly unravel. The good news is that my unraveling often takes the form of me just launching into writing one of the scenes. Once I’m actually writing a scene, I’m not about to stop to go back to the outline. When I get stuck, which of course inevitably happens, I consider the outline again, which usually leads me to writing another scene. After a period of time—and for a short story this can be a few days (when I’m very, very lucky) to more typically a few months, if not a couple of years—I’ll have a bunch of scenes with which I’m happy. I will realize that while I don’t have an outline, I do have a draft.

This is the moment when I get super strict with myself. I have to cut scenes that don’t work or contribute. I have to figure out the order of the scenes. I have to write additional scenes that have become necessary. (This is one of the most difficult steps, adding scenes that I’ve deemed from a more analytical mind need to be added). Next comes the winnowing: examining every paragraph, sentence, and word for ones that should be cut.

But wait, I wrote: Next comes…. As if there’s an order to how I do this. As if I always do it the same way. I wish I knew my process. I wish there were a formula for how it works every time. Instead, my process changes constantly. I’m always discovering new ways of discovering story. But then that’s exactly why I love writing stories because the work is never the same and always surprises me.