Learning How To Outline

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I’m not an outliner. I use my first drafts–zero drafts–to figure out characters, plot, setting etc.

But lately that method has not been working for me. My chronic illness caused me to lose my executive function for months. I could not make decisions. Novels are nothing but decisions.

My executive function returned as I learned to manage being sick, but I’m still not as sharp as I was. The parts of novel writing I once found relatively easy, I now struggle with, and the parts that were once hard? Well, you can imagine. This illness has changed my brain.

On top of that I now tire quickly. Writing leaves me exhausted. Turns out that outlining requires fewer spoons than exploratory drafting. Or maybe it’s just that doing something in a different way is energising?

I’m not an outliner. I’ve tried to outline before. Many times. And failed. Outlining felt like scratching at nerve endings. We hates it.

But this time instead of giving up in annoyance after a day or two of struggle, I pushed through to understand what it is about outlining I find so difficult. Why does it set my teeth on edge? Why does it make me shouty? Why do I hate it?

I finally figured it out.

All my novels start with the characters. Even Liar. Although I had the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a pathological/compulsive liar first. I was unable to start writing it until I knew who that liar was. Micah emerged strongly as I drafted. Once I knew her the plot started happening.

Characters first; plot later.

If I don’t know who my characters are, how do I know what they’re capable of? How can I know what kind of plot they’ll generate?

Bingo.

I stopped attempting to outline. I’d already charted the novel’s opening and first few scenes so I started writing them. I wrote chapter after chapter, getting to know my two pov characters, and the people in their lives, which started to generate story, and allowed me to get back to the outlining.

When I can’t go any further with the outline I go back to drafting until I know enough to continue.

I know the end of this novel.

I’ve never known the end of any of my novels before I wrote them. It’s very strange. I worry that I’ve spoiled myself, that I won’t want to actually write it. But every time I go back to drafting after being stuck, it’s so much fun! I love learning more about these characters and what they want and why they kill. The outline is bare bones. It’s not heart or soul.

I don’t have a full outline yet–my illness makes me so very slow–but I have more of an outline than I’ve ever had. It’s wild. Did I mention that I know how this book ends? I know what happens for the first third.

My old reason for not outlining was that standard one: if I know what happens and write it all out then why would I write the whole novel? I’d bore myself to tears.

It’s not true, though.

Even this detailed outline I’m constructing is not like writing the novel. There’s an ocean between: She switches seats on the plane to allow a separated couple to sit together and finds herself next to a stylish Grace Kelly type, looking all patrician and better than you and the actual descriptive passage detailing that event, which reveals her thoughts, so the reader knows and understands why she hates WASPy blondes and why she wants to get drunk and why she fantasises about committing murder.

Outlines and novels are not the same genre. Outlines are barely writing at all. They’re more like notes, than novel writing. It’s the to-do list, not that which is done. It’s the incomplete recipe, not the actual meal. Outlines are mere potential. Novels are life.

It might be that I’ll never just wing it again. That I’ll be all outlines all the time. It feels very strange. But whatever is necessary for me to write novels again.

I’m a novelist. Writing novels has been central to my identity for decades now. It has been agony not being able to write. I thought I had lost myself. Being able to write novels again is everything to me. No matter how slow. No matter how different my methods are. The writing is the thing.

Why I Left Twitter, or, the Last Day of 2019

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This has been a horrible year for me.1 Or, rather, it’s been a horrible two years–more than two years.

In June 2017, I woke up feeling weird. It was the beginnings of this chronic, incurable, non-fatal illness that now holds huge sway over my life.

Over the next few months, more symptoms manifested, the worst of which was losing my executive function. I couldn’t make decisions. Do you know what activity requires lots of decisions?

Writing novels.

I couldn’t do my job.

I’ve never had writer’s block. Ever.

Not being able to write, not being able to decide what to wear, or whether to leave the house, or pretty much anything, was a nightmare. I became depressed.

When I became ill, I’d written two thirds of a novel from the pov of a psychopath. It was already doing my head in writing the thoughts of a character who considered other humans to be pawns, not people.

After I got sick it was worse.

I’d be stuck reading the one scene, passage or sentence over and over, hating what I was reading, trying to find a way forward, failing, switching to a different scene, passage, sentence, clause, failing again, feeling worse and worse.

Every day I’d doggedly try to do my job. The words I’d already written, led me to choices I was no longer capable of making. Bleak choices. I’d stare, read and reread, and type nothing.

My depression deepened.

I broke out of it when we learned how to manage my illness. As my executive function slowly returned, I tentatively wrote again. Instead of plunging back into the novel, I went back to basics.

I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Le Guin is stern. I needed her strong, unrelenting, unforgiving voice to guide me.2 I did the writing exercises she laid out exactly as she told me to.

Every day I sat, read a chapter, tried the exercise. It was brutal. But gradually my fluency returned. The exercises started turned into stories.3

My agent, Jill Grinberg, who’s been amazingly supportive throughout, read the stories, said encouraging things, suggested one of them would work as a novel. So I did what she said. Being told what to do helped a lot.4

That exercise turned into a novel. Not a very good one. But definitely a novel-shaped text, with characters and exposition, a beginning, middle and end.

I’m currently rewriting that mess. It’s slow going–slower than I’ve ever written–but I’m writing.

I’ve learnt (yet again) that I’m happiest when I write. If I’m not writing, I’m not wholly me. I’ve learnt to work around my illness.

I’m not going to name it or talk about the many other symptoms. I don’t want to talk about it.

That’s not true.

Since June 2017, there have been many times when it’s all I can talk about. I’ve told random people on trams, trains and planes about it. Blurted out my symptoms to startled wait staff, acquaintances and strangers at weddings, parties, conferences and fundraisers.

I discovered that many of my friends and acquaintances have chronic diseases. Is anyone truly able bodied?

My friend with Hashimoto’s doesn’t really think about it that much–except when the price of meds goes up. God Bless the USA.5 Another friend doesn’t think about her illness except when she winds up in hospital.

I had no idea.

Why didn’t they tell me? Why have I stopped telling people?

So many reasons! Because:

Lots of able-bodied people don’t get it, we’re sick of talking about it, we don’t want your pity or revulsion, we’re sick of well-meaning people recommending treatments we’ve already tried or are pure quackery. No, being immunised did not cause this.6

Also we’re past the crisis stage, when we’re desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s all we think about.

We’re in the management phase. We know what meds to take, what diet/exercise/therapies work.

My family and friends know what’s going on. I love that they check in with me and support me and mostly treat me the way they always did. That’s enough.7

I no longer enjoy talking about my chronic illness.8 I talk about it far less. Though I have one friend with similar symptoms. We check in with each other regularly. She gets it and never says, “Hope you get well soon! I’m glad you’re getting better!”

What part of “chronic” and “incurable” do people not understand!?

I know, I know, our language around illness is rubbish. Folks mean well. Before I joined the ranks of the spoonies I said ridiculous stuff like that too.

I’m so sorry.

More than two years into this chronic, incurable, though not fatal, illness, I’m still learning how to cope with so few spoons. I still think like an able-bodied person, but I’m not. I’m a spoonie.

That’s why I left Twitter.

Things that were easy are now hard. Much of my resilience is gone.

I love Twitter. The conversations I’ve had on there with people all over the world have taught me so much and made me laugh and changed me.9

But after my illness, I started to hate Twitter. I lost my ability to brush off unjust criticism, to think through just criticism, or to tell the difference between the two. Even benign comments in my mentions upset me.

Twitter was wiping out all my spoons. I couldn’t tweet and write. Some days I couldn’t tweet and get out of bed.

So in November I walked away. I don’t know when I’ll return or if I’ll return. I’ve been doing better without it, though I miss the conversations around cricket and basketball and fashion and books and politics and TV. I miss my Twitter community.

I’ve been writing more, and getting out more, and learning about the new vintage clothes world on Instagram via my private account there.

Who knows? Maybe as I become better adjusted to so few spoons, I’ll return to Twitter. Or maybe I’ll start blogging regularly-ish in 2020?

I used to blog every day.

I used to write a recap of my year every 31 December and point forward to what I was publishing in the coming year.

I couldn’t do that in 2018. I published nothing and sold nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to get out of bed or not. I certainly couldn’t decide what to blog.

As it happens, I did publish this year. A bleak short story called “Elegy” for Emily X R Pan and Nova Ren Suma‘s YA anthology, Foreshadow. It’s an incredible anthology with many fabulous stories.

I will have a new story published next year. It’s called “When I was White” and will be in Adi Alsaid‘s YA anthology on immigration, Come On In published by Inkyard Press in October 2020.10

I wrote this year and I’ll write in 2020.

I have no idea when there’ll be a new novel from me. But given that I’m months from finishing this rewrite, it would be published in 2024 at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee it will find a publisher.11

All of which is huge progress from where I was a year ago, but It’s terrible compared to where I was ten years ago.

Things don’t always get better, but if we’re lucky, and have support from those who love us,12 we have a shot at learning to manage.

  1. And the world. I write this in Sydney, on a day when the entire South coast of NSW is on fire. Lives and homes and national parks and agriculture are going up in flames. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick here in the city there’s a Poor Air Quality Forecast from the NSW government and we’re being advised to stay indoors. It’s been like that off and on for weeks.

    Currently our AQI of 124 is worse than Beijing’s. All we talk about here is the drought, air masks, purifiers, and what we can personally do to ameliorate climate change and force our governments to do likewise. There are worse fires in the Amazon. There are environmental disasters everywhere. []

  2. It was also a way of mourning her death. She is a foundational writer for me. []
  3. Stories Le Guin would have considered woeful, but no matter. []
  4. Hilariously. I’ve always hated being told what to do. []
  5. Do not get me started on the US healthcare system. []
  6. I’m not interested in answering questions or hearing miracle cures unless they’re thoroughly peer reviewed and even then odds are I’ve already heard about it. Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. I consider Chinese medicine to be peer reviewed and as (in)fallible as Western medicine. For me acupuncture works great at bringing swelling down and various other things. It hasn’t worked on this illness. But then neither has western medicine. Both have helped manage the symptoms. []
  7. My seven-year-old niece’s concern breaks my heart. []
  8. Yes, in the beginning, when we had no idea what was going on, and my symptoms were weird, and weren’t disrupting my work or play, it was kind of fun to talk about, and shock folks with photos of the weirdness. []
  9. I found the people who think cricket is as funny as I do. []
  10. All you editors, who over the years have asked me for short stories, and I said I don’t write them? Turns out I write short stories now. Hit me up! []
  11. Fortunately, I’m working on other novels. So who knows? Maybe in 2030 there’ll be four from me at once. []
  12. Scott and my family have been incredible. I love them so much. []