Tempus Fugit

Three steps forward, two steps back: The Writer’s Tango. This week I fell further behind my so-called schedule while accelerating the pace of my work. Did some great work with my co-writer, and also found time to do some great work on the Shine rewrite and the websomething. Needs must, when the devil drives.

I didn’t post on Thursday or Friday; I was busy writing. It’s a hazard of posting a work diary. I took it easy on the weekend. On Monday morning I felt refreshed and ready to work.

One thing that I did was a devise a purpose-built outlining tool, and it got me thinking about how different outlining tools work, and how important it is to keep your methods fluid.

“Outline” means different things to a different people. I tend to use the term to refer to a document that lists what’s going in the piece that I’m working on in the order that they go in. Depending on the form I’m working in, I might call it a “step outline”. I usually just write each thing on a line. If something needs sub-outlining, I might do that too, or add a couple of notes about stuff I know needs to go in the “step”.

An outline is very linear. Almost all outlining tools are representations of linear structure: A, then B, then C, then D. But even though they might contain exactly the same information, a Word document with ten double-spaced lines of text on it feels completely different from a row of ten index cards with a line of text each. And a handwritten sheet of paper with the same ten lines is different, too.

Each of them is shorthand for the work as a whole, and none of them will mean much to anyone except the writer. A short phrase is able to represent something larger, something between a paragraph and ten pages, because the writer knows what it means. It’s your tool; no one else has to look at it.

On Styles and Society, I’m doing something a bit backwards, which is that I’m retroengineering an outline from a book that is substantially complete. We have an overall structure for the whole book that works; my day-by-day work is to restructure each chapter. So my work begins with an inventory. Then the question is: What does this want to look like? And then: “What’s the most efficient way to turn this from what it is into what it wants to look like?”

The first chapter I tackled was the biggest: 82 pages on Victorian architecture. I used a three-page outline to represent an 82 page document. First I went through the doc adding headings and extracting a brief description of each section, then I turned that into something like a step list. To whit:

Point-counterpoint: the lazy indian and the protestant wendigo

How verticality and horizontality trend together in architecture +fashion

Donald Smith
HBC Hero and capitalist monster
cf. Thompson, Fraser + their ilk

Like I said, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the writer. Anyway, this gave me a tool that I could use to see what I had; then I rearranged the structure of the chapter by rearranging the outline. I had page numbers for each step, and a hard copy for reference, so it wasn’t too headsucking to rearrange the old version of the chapter to match the new version of the outline.

I’m a big believer in index cards. I’ll whip them out at the slightest provocation. I usually use blank business cards, because a million of them can fit on a table and they force me to keep the thoughts on them simple. The beauty of them is that they’re so tactile. In a word doc, things are in a certain order, but your cards don’t have to be laid out in a line. You can shuffle them around, put related ideas together, toss the things you’re not sure about in a pile to the side, whatever floats your boat. Something about physically moving the cards connects to the body. Most artists know that the body makes the decisions, not the head. Don’t take my word for it, though. Try all the tools, get to know them, and when you reach into your toolbox you’ll grab the right one.

On this rewrite, I haven’t touched the cards at all. The closest I came was printing out a whole chapter, then cutting it up with scissors. I never tried this one before, but it worked great. I stapled each section together (each section already had a heading in boldface), then I was able to move them around and stack the consecutive sections in little groups. It let me see all the headings at once, so I could see the entire chapter – plus it let me pick up a section and just read it to see what was in it. Also it was really easy to pick up orphaned paragraphs and move them around. Worked great. Wouldn’t have worked with Victorian, though. Victorian was too large. And it wasn’t necessary to do it for Classical, because the changes for Classical were minor enough that I could do them right in the doc.

So the lesson is not to get hung up on finding one tool that works all the time, but to learn what all your tools feel like, then just reach for the one you need.

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