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Conversion Experience:
How I Learned to Outline

by Bridget Bufford


Bridget Bufford

My first three manuscripts were conceived and written largely in my weekly workshops, wherein we use the Amherst Writers & Artists method of writing to prompts, then reading and responding in the group. The AWA method is great for producing short inspired pieces, but workshop writings can be a very slow way to put together a novel.

About a year ago I changed the format of my Tuesday night group; now it's a workshop for writers of novels, memoirs and collections. I'm astounded at how much we get done. Folks who talked wistfully for years about writing a book are now several chapters into one.

First Draft in 30 Days?
One of the women brought in a book called First Draft in Thirty Days (Karen S. Wiesner, Writer's Digest Books, 2005). The title is misleading (the method leads to a comprehensive outline rather than a first draft), but the book is a great vehicle for demystifying the outlining process. Basically, it's a series of worksheets, graduated from general to specific, that guides you to make choices before you begin the work.

Writers tend to build such a mystique around their own process: writing implements, paper vs. computer, writing locations, etc. Though I have my preferences (I don't often write at home), a willingness to change and grow has always served me well. In the past, when asked about writing from an outline, I said I didn't use them, that I couldn't work that way. My writings were "muse-driven." I used workshop prompts to create characters and then allowed their stories to unfold gradually. For me, this often resulted in rich, compelling characters with erratic story lines woven into thin plots, requiring three to six drafts to rework. Using an outline could make my plots vastly more cohesive.

So I decided to take a look at the Thirty Days book. I have three different story lines on the back burner; those could take a decade to develop by writing in workshop. The Thirty Days author spends one month on an outline, then another three to four on a final draft.

I Gave It a Try
I was skeptical, but since I had nothing to lose by trying, I started filling out the worksheets. One of my concerns was valid: I wasn't able to answer the simplest questions spontaneously. I needed to write in order to connect with my characters, so I used the assignments as workshop prompts.

It took me twice Wiesner's proposed thirty days to complete the outline, but as I responded to the assignments in workshop, I began to generate a large amount of focused narrative. Nearly every worksheet produced new scenes for the book, which fit neatly into predetermined positions. I became totally invested in the story, and got on a writer's high like I have never experienced. By the end of January, I had a finished outline and 50 handwritten pages of the story.

I returned to landscaping in the spring, and since then my productivity has slowed. I like the work, but it is exhausting, and I don't get much writing done during the season. Still, at the 9-month mark I'm 240 pages into a first draft that, according to my two beta readers, reads like a polished work. I don't believe it will require much revision, because I edit the outline as I go along.

An Exciting System
I'm really excited about this system. It's hard work, and at first I didn't like it (who looks forward to an outline?), but it completely revitalized my writing process. And I'm not even good at it! I skipped a quarter of the exercises and initially produced capsule descriptions of only 40 scenes. I have to keep adding new ones as I progress; the end result will approach 60-70 scenes.

The author of First Draft in Thirty Days advises writers to try the method more than once before deciding whether it will prove useful. I can see why; I'm sure that the process gets easier with each subsequent attempt. I streamlined it for my own purposes, since some of the suggested exercises seemed more appropriate for the elaborate story lines found in mystery or science fiction.

Outlining isn't for everyone. The structure would have been daunting if I'd been introduced to it before I wrote my first three manuscripts. At this point, though, it's clear to me that using this system will make me a more productive writer.
Bridget Bufford lives in mid-Missouri, where she leads Amherst Writers & Artists workshops, works for a landscape company, and provides respite for children with autism. Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey, her first novel, was a 2005 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her short stories and essays appear in Romance for LIFE (Intaglio), Pillow Talk II (Alyson), Body Check (Alyson); and The Use of Personal Narratives in the Helping Professions (Haworth).
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