I spend a lot of time talking to other writers about their work. Some are new writers. Some are more established. But sometimes, I have to give myself a bit of a shove…

I have planned, since early July, to enter a chapbook contest, and I’ve known the deadline date for months: August 15.

When I first heard of the contest, I played with several possible submissions. I have one long story that could fill up the 30 to 45 pages. I have another three-part story that I’ve long wanted to have published as a tryptic. And there was the third option: Three related stories that I wrote a few years ago in anticipation of writing a novel that has yet to see any development.

I decided on the last option: three related stories that are the background of what may someday be a multi-generational novel set in Colorado. But I had a problem: the third story didn’t fit well, and even though it was the stronger of the three stories, I couldn’t use it.

That meant, in order to use the first two stories, I had to write a third one, from scratch.

That’s Not How I Work

The thing is, I didn’t know what the third story should BE. Well. Except, I needed fifteen pages.

But I am not, typically, a writer who writes based on the number of pages needed. Oh, there have been some write-for-hire kinds of projects where I was filling the required space, but in my fiction writing world, this simply IS NOT the way I work.

Sometimes, it is good to step outside the normal creative process. For me, that meant creating an outline for a recent short story.
Sometimes, it is good to step outside the normal creative process. For me, that meant creating an outline for a recent short story.

But that’s where I needed to have “the talk” with myself. It is the same talk I sometimes have with other writers: If you are stuck, or unsure, or floundering, maybe you should try something…different.

So, this past weekend, with the August 15th deadline approaching (and with a genuine desire to have a draft of the third story ready for a writers group on Tuesday) I did something I never do, when it comes to fiction first drafts: I made an outline. It went something like this:

  • Setup, 2 pages, Wade comes home from his “straight” job, Cassie goes to work, toddler in the playpen, baby #2 on the way
  • New Situation, 3 pages, record company calls, “You’re a hard man to find”
  • Progress, 2 pages, “You’ve still been writing?” big break offered
  • Complications, 3 pages, has to quit steady job for the possibility of chasing the dream, Cassie isn’t happy
  • Final Push, 3 pages, the bills are paid, Cassie is with him, but he has to tell her about the West Coast tour, then England
  • Resolution, 1 page,  he decides to keep after musical success, against Cassie’s wishes

As outlines go, this was still sort of wide open. And, in fact, in a some ways, I didn’t quite follow the outline.

So Why Do It?

If I didn’t follow the outline, exactly, that’s ok. There were still two good reasons for me to work this way:

1. The outline forced me to write SOMETHING. Yes, it was forced. And, honestly, the first draft felt stiff and lifeless. I was incredibly discouraged by the hand-written pages. But the pages were there. There were words to play with. I was stuck, and I wasn’t going to just “wait” to be unstuck. Perhaps I could have. But the answer wasn’t going to come in time to have a draft done on Tuesday, or the whole three-story arc ready by Friday.

2. The outline forced me outside of my comfort zone, and my creative side had to react. In a sense, the bad first draft made my creative side perk up. “Wait a minute,” the snotty writer said. “We can’t let this drivel out into the world. We’ll be exposed as a fraud! To battle stations!!”

As I transferred the handwritten draft into the computer, something amazing started to happen: The story took shape, around the outline, but without feeling “outlined”. There was breathing room, and I took advantage of those spaces. A few illuminating phrases here, some better dialogue there, and some key details that illuminated the themes of the story, and suddenly, it felt like I had something significant. Two more editing passes and reading it out loud to my beagle, and I felt I had something that was maybe, possibly, ready to be a real story. The group I read the story to today seemed to agree.

I know how Gepetto felt, when Pinocchio became a real boy.

Do you have an instance of stepping outside your normal process yielded positive results? Share it in the comments section. I’d love to hear more…

Some Days, The Words Just Come…
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