My Dreaded Homework Assignment: The Scene Outline

I hate homeworkI loathe homework. I always have. I know that sounds ludicrous coming from a former teacher and assistant principal. I’m reminded of that old cartoon—a woman is standing at the foot of the bed, hands perched atop her hips and says, “Time to get up, you’re going to be late for school!” A muffled voice from beneath the covers says, “I don’t want to go to school. The teachers pick on me and the kids make fun of me.” Her reply, “You have to go to school. You’re the principal!”

I never assigned much homework, much to the delight of my students, and from my personal experience homework is frequently busy work and often merely a reinforcement of a teacher’s authority over her students. So I’m on a tear about my current homework assignment. My editor is requiring a scene outline to make sure that all aspects of the story hold up, otherwise he’d have to read the entire manuscript all over again. And well, I’m in full-blown tantrum mode. It feels like busy work to me. And as you know from my usual rantings, I’m a die-hard panster. I write scenes as they come to me, then put them in order and smooth them out so they flow, providing backstory and references as needed. And voila! My book is done!

I recently read a post from Writers Helping WritersMichael Crighton’s Method of Plotting Out a Story, and was elated to discover that my all-time favorite author was a bit of a panster himself. Just to refresh your memory, he wrote Disclosure, Timeline, Sphere, the TV series, ER and the blockbuster Jurassic Park. But my favorite was Travels, a deeply personal memoir of his fascinating adventures as he traveled everywhere from the Mayan pyramids to Kilimanjaro.

While attending Harvard Medical School he used the popular technique of noting important information on index cards for later study and as a pre-med major myself, I often used this methodology to study for an exam. One summer, I took ornithology along with a buddy of mine. We shared a house with a few other students. Our professor required that we learn every Phylum, Class, Order and Family of the avian world and the characteristics differentiating each. All the names are Latin and seriously taxed my memorization skills. We had index cards taped everywhere—on the kitchen cabinets, the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, stove, walls, you name it, each replete with the Latin name on one side and the defining characteristics and examples on the other. Our roommates found it somewhat annoying, but we did ace that final exam.

Dr. Crighton adapted this practice to his writing methodology. He noted scenes on index cards as they came to him and then stuffed them in his lab coat or pocket. At the end of each day he threw the cards in a shoebox and when no new ideas came he’d arrange the cards in the sequence he wanted and then he’d write. When a scene comes to me, I write it down in as much detail as I can and save it in my new book file. I don’t bother with an index card, but now I realize this is an important step I’ve overlooked.

Consequently, writing a scene outline is the virtual equivalent of a homework assignment to me. I have to read through my completed manuscript, identifying each scene along with the setting and time of day, characters, a brief description of what the scene is about and answering the simple question: WHY? (Which for me isn’t simple at all.) My mind drifts, I’m easily distracted, and frequently I give up, having made little progress that day.

My editor constantly reminds me that it won’t take long, that I can knock it out in a few hours, but it always takes me at least a week. And it’s pure torture! I’m mostly left-brained, and I agonize over the details, analyzing and re-analyzing. I over-think and under-think. I change my mind a hundred times. I love solving math and logic problems and have no difficulty tackling that kind of analysis, but when it comes to the written word, well, it frustrates the bejeezus out of me.

It takes me back to English class. I truly dislike dissecting written works, preferring to just read for enjoyment, which is how I write– for pure enjoyment. As a bio major I did plenty of dissecting, but when you’re done ripping the specimen apart there’s nothing but random bits of bone and tissue and it’s something ugly. You’ve destroyed the beautiful entity that it was meant to be. I would never criticize an author (unless I’m a crit partner) or tear apart his work to attempt to discover some hidden theme or message. Sometimes a story or poem speaks to me, and sometimes it doesn’t. As a fiction writer I’m just telling a story, not trying to proselytize some moral or belief on my reader. My first novel was about the afterlife and lots of people asked me profound questions about my beliefs in God, religion, death, reincarnation…my reply was always the same: “It’s just a story…that’s all.”

When I’m writing a scene, I feel it, it sort of comes to me like a dream or a fantasy, and some times it actually does come in a dream as I explained in a prior post. I guess the reason I find this process so difficult is that it really is more of a feeling for me and very emotional, and I’ve never been good at dissecting my feelings and emotions anyway. Maybe therapy would help?

Consequently, I’m turning over a new leaf, vowing from now on that when a scene comes to me, I’m going to write it down on an index card (I can see you smirking at me, Heather) and put it in the proverbial shoebox so that when I’m done and my editor calls me out on it, I’ll be ready. At least, that’s the plan. Unfortunately, it’s going to take some work, as planning is not something I’m terribly good at either.


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

One thought on “My Dreaded Homework Assignment: The Scene Outline”

  1. I agonize over dissecting my story. I know i have all the needed parts.

    I’m hoping it will get easier over time. Dissecting my story gives me sweaty palms and a racing heart, it feels like an exam I know I’m going to fail even if I have the knowledge.

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