For this week’s post I have to state a disclaimer first: Outlining is great. It’s useful. This post isn’t designed to prove outlining is not done or not useful. As usual every writer is different. Some outline, some don’t. Either way can work for you to finish a manuscript. You just have to figure out what works for you personally.
So what IS this post about if it’s not about disproving outlines can help you?
I’ve always been curious about the subconscious and the work our brain does when we’re not actively thinking about work (or anything in particular). I wondered what this means for both writers who outline and those who don’t.
Is the subconscious more relevant to writers who write directly from their brain without doing any pre-work? It seems like it should be – outliners usually have everything planned don’t they? Is there a correlation between using your subconscious more or less whether you’re someone who outlines vs someone who just writes what comes into their minds? I thought for a long time that there might be – surely someone who has thought up a tight plot doesn’t need to rely on their subconscious so much – but I’ve since learned for myself this is not the case. The plotting outliners do before they start to write relies on the subconscious as much as the story that goes directly from brain to page.
But don’t take it from me! Let’s see what our twelve writing superheroes have to say about it!
This week we’ve asked:
How much control do you want over what you are writing? Where does the subconscious come in?
ADRIAN: I don’t think I’d class either as scary, but if forced to go for one then, editing. Writing is definitely more fun. Editing always feels grueling, and I often have a gap between receiving edits and starting on them in which I feel the whole business is insuperable and horrible, but once I get down to it, it tends to go efficiently enough.
There is definitely a subconscious element [to writing a story], and I think perhaps a big part of being a writer might be to have a good partnership with your own brain. It’s very difficult to describe just when I’m riding my subconscious and when it’s riding me, and I suspect that the real writing gets done in a littoral space between the two worlds, informed by both.
I am a control freak. Experience has taught me I get the best results from detailed planning and preparation. That might just mean thinking about something for a few days and letting it germinate, rather than making extensive notes, maps, writing histories, etc, but I still have to have most of the story already formulated before I begin.
I think my subconscious is much smarter than I am, so I try to remain open to its innovations while I’m working on something. So many times, I’ve been writing something and the very process of working on it spawns an idea that improves it.
I want the story and characters to follow my plot outline. But there’s something to be said for the subconscious solving plot problems while you’re working on something else.
Picasso said something like the muse comes when she’s called, and if you show up every morning at 9 at the studio, she’ll be there waiting for you. Your subconscious will be delighted to work with you if you enjoy what you work. Be careful not to sabotage yourself and your subconscious with self-doubt and destructive self-criticism.
It’s a good idea, though, to always carry a notebook with you or have a notes app on your phone. The subconscious has a bad habit of delivering great ideas when you least expect them.
My subconscious is a lot smarter and a lot more confident than I am. Sometimes it falls short (that’s when those outlines come into play), but when I’m actually putting words on paper, I sort of zone out, and the writing happens. Similarly, when I’m doing those outlines, often the AHAH! moment comes when I’m doing something else. Cooking, walking, trying to go to sleep… it takes the pressure off, and then the part of my mind that’s in the background flips a few puzzle pieces around and suddenly it makes sense. I just have to provide the structure (outlines, notes, writing schedules, etc) to make sure things keep working.
I think the subconscious comes in a lot. I don’t always know much about the story when I start. I want to explore the character I’ve come up with, and I have an image of the environment they’re in that I want to develop. I’ll usually have some idea of the first plot point, and a very vague idea of what the ending might be. Once I get to that first plot point, I’ll have a better idea where to go from there. Sometimes I’ll get stuck because I’m trying to push the story in a direction where my subconscious doesn’t want it to go. Trying to figure out just what my subconscious wants can mean a lot of writing and re-writing.
The subconscious is crucial because it’s always gathering and combining things I’ve read or observed or experienced and sending weird little ideas to the surface: what if? what if? what if? I daydream a lot, I run little scenarios in my mind, I talk to my characters (not aloud, anymore, usually), I get on the stationary bike and listen to music and figure out character arcs and plots. By the time I write I usually know what I’m writing (that’s how I do it fairly quickly), but I do leave myself room to improvise and be surprised. I usually know what my characters need to do, and leave myself some wiggle room regarding how they do it.
Well, as stated before, I’ll decide I want to write a story about … equality, say, and I might get 10,000 words into it before my brain tells me I’m actually writing about oppression instead. So then I’ll have to redraft parts of what I’ve already written to fit what it is I’m really trying to say. People talk about having a muse; for me that’s my subconscious, and subconscious Anna can take a while to get going, but when she does, she comes up with good ideas.
I’ve learnt that in my case it’s best to let go of some level of control, because that’s when I do my best work. The broad framework of the piece – the setting, the characters, and the main elements of the plot – will stay roughly the same, but the emphasis can shift quite dramatically when I find what it is I’m actually trying to say within that framework.
In all of my books so far, I have had a core idea and a rough outline going into the process. But I also know that ideas and plot outlines are a dime a dozen. The surprising phrases, the unexpected development in a character or storyline, those things that jump to mind as I’m writing — that’s where my best work is, and I can never force or predict those moments. All I know is that I have to sit down and put in the time, and eventually it will happen, the layers will deepen and the metaphors will come. So for me, both elements — the logical, linear and the random sparks of creativity — are important to my writing process.
I mean, there’s only so much conscious control one can exercise. For me personally, I care a lot about controlling plot (that’s the part I spend the most time on) and somewhat about controlling character and then theme just sort of happens as a side-effect. I’m sure it’s different for others.
Again we are faced with a slew of hugely diverse answers about the subconscious works for our twelve writing superheroes.
I’d argue that the most important insight we can glean from this post is: There is a certain measure of subconscious effort that goes into every story whether you outline or not.
So is there then a reason to panic over not having an outline? To be afraid of losing control and not knowing where to go next? Probably not (unless your deadline is tomorrow and you haven’t even started the story yet). Although it’s useful (very useful) to have a plan where you’re going (like you would on any trip!) your subconscious will do some of the work without you having to think about it. The rest is just sitting down and applying some elbow grease to your piece of text.
Here’s an example. Say you live close to Amsterdam and you’d like to visit a city in your vicinity: Berlin isn’t so far from you that you couldn’t hop in the car and visit it (coronavirus aside). As someone who doesn’t outline too much you may just get into the car and drive where your navigation system tells you. That’s fine. You’ll eventually reach Berlin.
It’s equally fine to create an itinerary of exactly how you want to drive there. Do you want to stop somewhere in the east of the Netherlands to get gas? Do you want a lunch stop in Cologne? You can plan all these in and have a real outline of what your journey might be like.
It’s fine to do it either way. Similar instincts to those that tell you when to stop for food (as opposed to having planned that exactly at 12:00 you will stop in Cologne to get a sandwich at a gas station) are the ones who’ll tell you where your story’s going off the rails if you haven’t planned it out.
So what’s the real secret to driving away the blank page fear here if you don’t absolutely have to outline? It’s this: Sit down and apply elbow grease even if you hate outlining. The story will come to you either way.
Next week we’re going to look at another fear writers often come up against: What do you do if you don’t have any ideas? Where do you start? So we’re asking our twelve writing superheroes: How much direction do you need to have before you can start a story? Stay tuned!