Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants

Author’s Note: The following is my teaching essay written during my MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College.

Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants
A Teaching Practicum Essay

By Jack Cameron

Goddard College
MFA in Creative Writing Program

via Zoom in cooperation with Creative Colloquy Writer’s Workshop Series
Two classes consisting of eight one-hour sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays from September 29, 2020 – October 22, 2020

BEGINNINGS          

When I was in high school a local mystery writer by the name of Earl Emerson visited our English class. At the time, I fancied myself a writer and never outlined anything I worked on. For me, the fun was joining the characters I had created on their adventures and seeing where they ended up. When he spoke of writing he said much the same thing about his beginnings in his craft. In that moment I felt a sort of kinship. Then he explained how he spent fourteen years writing novel after novel that no one wanted to buy. So one day he decided to outline a novel before he wrote it. That novel was The Rainy City and was the first of his Thomas Black novels. Every novel he’d written since had sold. It was after he said this that I started to take outlining very seriously.

            It didn’t take long for me to see the advantage of having an outline. My fear was that outlining would take the excitement out of writing, but I quickly learned that knowing how the story would end actually freed me up to pay closer attention to the characters and the writing because the ending would be there when I was ready to write it.

            In subsequent years I met dozens of other writers. Many enjoyed outlining. Many others refused to even entertain the concept of outlining. They preferred to write by the seat of their pants. These ‘pantsers’ as they are sometimes called, seemed fairly entrenched. I’ve had many spirited debates about this topic and have found myself similarly entrenched in the outliners camp. But the more I talked to these ‘pantsers’, the more I realized that they simply did not understand that outlining isn’t a blueprint in which nothing can be changed. It’s a roadmap. The direction and destination are set, but the map is not the terrain.

            It was with this concept in mind that I set out to teach a class I called ‘Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants’. I was hoping to convert some ‘pantsers’ and help those interested in outlining avoid some of the common problems with outlining.

            Originally the class was going to be taught in person at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible. Instead, I contacted Jackie Casella, the founder of a local literary organization called Creative Colloquy. They had something called The Writer’s Workshop Series. I asked if I might teach my outlining class as part of it. While I had participated in events with Creative Colloquy before, this would be the first class I’d taught through them. In fact, it would be the first class I had ever taught.

SETTING UP THE CLASS

Once I had found a topic for the class and a sponsoring organization from which to run the class, I needed to come up with an outline for the class itself. I spoke with my classmates at Goddard who had already completed their teaching practicum and found that some had fulfilled the fifteen-hour requirement by teaching a morning session and an evening session to two different groups of students. This appealed to me because it would give me an opportunity to see how the same lesson worked with different students and because I honestly wasn’t sure I had fifteen hours of material to teach.

            Having figured out the format, I looked at my options for teaching a virtual class. Thanks to my attending the recent virtual residency at Goddard via Zoom, my familiarity with the platform made it an obvious choice. It also presented a problem. My experience with Zoom classes had taught me that any class lasting longer than an hour had better be riveting because after an hour of staring at a screen, people tend to be restless. Given my inexperience, I figured it best not to tempt fate. My classes would be an hour long, twice a week for four weeks. Students could attend in the morning or the evening. Students would get two hours of class every week and I’d be teaching four hours every week.

            Creative Colloquy had done multi-day classes and workshops before, but to my knowledge, this would be the longest class they ever hosted. Thankfully, Jackie agreed with the format.

            I wanted the class to feel intimate. It was my hope that perhaps the disparate students would make friends with each other over the course of the class. So I limited each class to six students.

            Even with the class restrictions I had no idea how popular or unpopular the class might be. It was unfortunate that the class had to be virtual, but rather than focusing on what the class could not be, I tried to think of what the class could. The one advantage of having a virtual class is that no one has to travel to attend the class. I took advantage of the writing community that Jackie had created with Creative Colloquy and helped her with social media posts and any questions potential students had.

            Most of the students were local, much like the organization I was working through, but there were a few who were out of state and two from outside the country. One was an online friend who I had known for years. She lives in Abu Dhabi. The other was someone from Australia who I did not know before the class started.

            In thinking about the class, I was all too aware that mine was not the typical college experience. I had taken a twenty year break from college and returned to community college in my 40s, but after getting my Associates Degree in Human Services, I transferred to The Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus where much of the curriculum is self-directed and there are evaluations rather than grades. After getting my Bachelor of Arts at Evergreen, I found Goddard to be remarkably similar, but more focused on writing.

            These experiences made it almost inevitable that I would conduct the class in an informal and friendly manner rather than one of achievement and competition. I would hardly know how to do anything else. More than anything, in putting together the class, I tried to imagine what I would want in such a class.

            I had one additional idea: I would complete every assignment I instructed my students to complete. This would allow me to participate in the class while also outlining my next big project. I thought it would be a good way to make it more engaging for me. I would learn that I was very wrong.

THE FIRST SESSION – THE CORE CONCEPT

My first class began at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning. I had been told that all six slots had been taken. I started the Zoom call a full fifteen minutes early, nervous that I might have technical issues. I didn’t.

            For the first class I wanted to do two things: dispel some common thoughts about outlining and get the class thinking about the core idea of their story. In my original syllabus I had put these two topics as the first two classes, but as I reviewed my material, it became clear that I would have time for both in the first class. Before I could do either of those things though, I had to learn from my students what they already knew and thought about outlining. Were they new to the concept? Had they been outlining for years? Did they have an intense dislike for outlining? I would find that depending on the student, the answer was ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

            I have been known to talk a lot. It’s not uncommon for me to monopolize a conversation in a group of people if I’m not careful. Over the years, I’ve learned not to do that so much. It took some mental adjusting to realize that my students actually expected me to do most of the talking and lead the conversation. I know that this seems obvious, but it simply wasn’t something I thought about before I began the class.

            The next discovery I made was that it is very difficult to determine how long a particular lesson will take to complete. Each class was an hour long, but the length of the lesson was determined as much by class participation as it was by the content of the lesson. Despite combining what I initially thought would be two hours of material into one class, I found that I was out of material for my first session in just under forty minutes.

            To fill this time, I had an improvisational conversation with my students about their writing experiences and their expectations for the class. Some of what they said ended up informing future lesson plans.

            The first session in the evening consisted of five students. A sixth had signed up but never attended. Between sessions, I added some material to my lesson plan hoping that it would manage to fill most of the hour, but found the conversation at the end of the morning class so beneficial that I hoped I would have an opportunity to talk to my evening students in a similar manner.

            I needn’t have worried. It turned out that one of the primary differences between the two classes was that the morning class was simply less talkative because it was still morning. The evening class was much more engaged. In the morning class there had been one notable exception: A student named Ola was very talkative. I realized that this was because she was in Abu Dhabi and for her my ‘morning’ class was actually in the evening for her. Similarly, my evening class had a woman named, Mel who was in Australia. For her the ‘evening’ class was during her lunch hour.

            The evening class went much smoother. My class still ran short, but at forty-eight minutes, I was comfortable with that. I was surprised by the diverse experience in the class. One had never written much of anything. Another had published before, but never liked outlining. Yet another was attending the class because she was creating and running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

             After each class I sent an email that echoed things mentioned in class, gave links to anything I might have mentioned, and gave them their optional assignments. For the first class, the assignment was simple: Just write your core story concept in 30 words or less. I also gave a bonus assignment of expanding the idea to 100 words or less. This would be the only assignment I successfully completed with the class.

THE SECOND SESSION – CHARACTERS

Though the class was focused on outlining, there is a lot of preparation that goes into the outlining process that I felt needed to be covered. For my second session I wanted to focus on what I feel is the driving force behind all great stories: compelling characters.

            For this session I partially relied on John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. In his book, Truby explains how characters in a good story are not separate entities apart from each other but carefully connected in important ways. As he puts it:

“The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is that they think of the hero and all other characters as separate individuals. The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker…

To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often defined by who he is not.” (57)

I then related this concept back to their core idea. How their characters interacted with this idea would reveal their roles and help create dimensionality in their characters. I felt it was important to focus on character because to me the best stories are character driven.

Like the previous class I found that my preparation fell short of the hour long class time. In both my morning and evening classes I ran out of material around the forty-minute mark and had to basically riff from there.

After the second evening session, it became clear to me that the amount of time I spent preparing for the class and the amount of material I used for the class had to increase. I needed to over-prepare.

THE THIRD SESSION – STORY CIRCLE

 The second assignment was to write up character sketches of each of our major characters. I realized I had time to adequately prepare for my class or do the assignment myself. Not both. But I also found a deeper revelation. This desire to do the homework with the class wasn’t just me playing along. It was me resisting my position as a teacher.

            My students did not want and did not need me to do the assignments or to behave as a fellow student. They hadn’t signed up for a writing sprint. They had signed up for a class and a class needs a teacher. Teaching the class required more than my interest in the topic. It required me to do the work and come up with lesson plans that would help my students learn. In order to be a teacher, I had to stop pretending to be a student.

            For my third class, I focused on story structure. Though I was familiar with various story structures, I spent hours reading and watching videos on the topic between my second and third session. I found examples and sources I could share with the class. I practiced talking about them. I spent the weekend reading and rereading.

            While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is a well thought out way to look at story, I have never found it particularly useful. I fundamentally disagreed with Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat because I don’t believe that characters necessarily need to be likeable as much as they need to be understandable. (Walter White from Breaking Bad isn’t a likeable character, but since we understand why he does what he does, we’ll follow him anywhere.) What I have found very useful in my own writing though is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. I wanted to teach the Story Circle to my students as I found it the most helpful way to look at stories.

            I first came across Dan Harmon’s Story Circle in a profile of him in Wired magazine in 2011. It’s essentially a simplified and more user-friendly version of The Hero’s Journey.

He wanted to codify the storytelling process—to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

  • 1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
  • 2.  But they want something
  • 3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
  • 4.  Adapt to it
  • 5.  Get what they wanted
  • 6.  Pay a heavy price for it
  • 7.  Then return to their familiar situation
  • 8.  Having changed

Harmon calls his circles embryos—they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. 

(Raftery, Brian. “Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community’)

            In both my morning and evening classes my students lit up. They asked questions (and I knew the answers). They wanted to know more. They seemed to understand what I was trying to convey. It was the first session where I truly felt like I had some idea what I was doing. The assignment for the third session was simple: look for story circles in whatever television, books, or movies they consumed.

            There was another aspect to this level of preparation: I was enjoying myself. I had successfully navigated the first two sessions, but neither was fully enjoyable because I felt myself struggling quite a bit. I ran out of lesson plan before I ran out of time and as a result I felt like I wasn’t succeeding. With this class, I enjoyed the whole experience knowing that my students were learning.

THE FOURTH SESSION – THE SHORT OULINE & PERSPECTIVE

The fourth session of my class was the half-way point. We had talked about the seed of the story, characters, and story structure. Given that the class was about outlining, it seemed like it might be time to talk about actually writing an outline.

            However, the class went differently than I expected. Maybe my experience in the third session had given me some overconfidence. Maybe the fact that having classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays simply didn’t give me enough time in between classes to prepare enough material for Thursday classes. Whatever the case, my morning class in which we talked about how to do a short outline of their stories ran out of material at around the twenty-five minute mark. I knew I couldn’t simply wing it with nothing for the rest of the hour. So I took my loose sketch of next week’s lesson plan on character perspectives and started teaching that. The character perspective exercise was something I had come up with on my own where we write the story as seen from each major character’s perspective. I’ve found that this often locates plot holes. In between the morning and evening classes I solidified the perspective lesson plan and taught what I thought was going to be sessions four and five in session four.

            This experience was not only humbling but gave me a new problem: What was I going to teach for session five? Session six? I could do that, but it was just postponing the problem. I had to take a look at remaining parts of my entire lesson plan and rework it.

THE FIFTH SESSION – SCENES

After what happened with session four, I again spent as much time as I could making sure I had an hour’s worth of lesson plan. Now that they had a solid concept of their characters and story I wanted to get into the details of a scene. Many of the same mechanics at work in a story are at work in each individual scene. I spent a lot of time researching and finding examples of good scenes that I could show my students. The assignment for session five was to simply write one scene. Given that the class was a Tuesday class and they only had a couple of days to get it done, I didn’t expect much.

            I was surprised. Not only was this an assignment that garnered the most participation, but the results were impressive. I could see the students’ use of the topics we’d talked about in previous lessons. Their talent impressed me. I felt like just maybe I was succeeding at this teaching thing.

THE SIXTH SESSION – THE FINAL OUTLINE

Originally I had planned for this to be the seventh session, but since I had put sessions four and five together, I was now at what I thought was going to be the penultimate session, with still two sessions to go.

            This session was probably what most of the students expected the entire class was going to be. I focused on the final outline. I had no expectation that anyone was going to turn in a final outline. A final outline has every scene from the story in it and can sometimes be thirty or forty pages. I told them to ignore the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ because this outline was for them, not for the audience. I reminded them that the outline is just a guide and not scripture. Outlines can and should be changed when necessary. But I reminded them that if their characters started running away with the plot, they may want to do more character work and rework the outline before they continue with the manuscript.

            This class went well with both morning and evening classes lasting almost the full hour. I also asked them to email me over the weekend with any topics they wanted to talk about during our seventh session. My solution for having combined two sessions during our fourth class was to have a session that was simply whatever topics the students wanted to talk about. This would give them an opportunity to ask questions or touch on items we had not had a chance to cover in previous classes.

THE SEVENTH SESSION – STUDENTS’ CHOICE

Monday rolled around and I noticed that four of the five people in the evening class had sent me questions and topics while the morning class had not sent me anything. Given that the next session was in less than twenty-four hours, I reached out via email and received suggestions and questions from two of the five remaining students in my morning class.

            I knew immediately that there wasn’t enough material to sustain a whole class and decided to ask myself what I had missed and what I might want to talk about with the class before it was over.

            Since the morning class had not given me much to work with, I included some of the material the evening class had asked about. I also decided to talk about diversity in stories and how it’s important to remember that somewhere out there is a person just like your character and they will read what you wrote. If you get it wrong, they’re going to be upset. If you get it right, they’ll love you for it. It turned out to be a topic that fostered quite a bit of discussion.

            More than any other session this one felt like a real class. I was leading the discussion, but the important part was that it was a discussion. There was some awkwardness in that two of the students from the evening class were unable to attend and they had both asked a significant number of questions via email. I waited to talk about those last just in case they came in late. I really didn’t want to have them come in and hear me say, “I’m sorry. We just answered your questions.” Luckily I was able to record the session so that they could watch it at a later date.

THE FINAL SESSION – RESOURCES AND GOODBYES

For the final session I had intentionally prepared a short lesson plan. I shared with the class what sources I used for the class, what materials I find useful in my writing craft, and ‘rules’ I’ve gathered from various writers I admire. I then allowed time for the students to reflect on the class and tell me what worked, what didn’t, and any other topics they wanted to talk about. It’s difficult to give that ‘last day of school’ feeling via Zoom, but I tried my best.

            Students expressed thanks for the class. One told me that they were unable to watch television now without looking for story circles and questioning the underlying mechanics of the story on screen. When I told them that I may do another class, to my surprise, they all asked me to notify them if I did. The morning class actually went a half hour longer than expected as our discussion warranted the extra time.

ENDINGS

As I write this, there is a voice in the back of my head telling me I need to prepare for Tuesday’s lesson plan. I don’t know that I became good at teaching during this time, but I certainly did get used to doing it.

            I had no idea if I would enjoy teaching and was pleasantly surprised to learn that I did. I also did not expect to connect with the students so much. It’s a genuinely odd feeling to know that I may never talk to some of them again. I have some sadness that I did not expect to feel.

            I still need to work on time management. I feel like the times when the lesson plan lasted the full hour was equal parts preparation and dumb luck. It’s clear to me that over-preparation is key and I marvel at work that must have gone into some of the four-hour classes I’ve taken. I don’t think I’ll ever look at classes quite the same way again now that I’ve been on the other side.

            My classes did not end up following the syllabus I put together and sometimes didn’t follow the lesson plans. There’s a real need for improvisation in effective teaching, but I also feel like I need to spend a lot more time preparing for class than I did during this practicum.

            I got into this program to hone my writing craft with a casual interest in teaching. I am shocked to discover that now, after teaching for four weeks and sixteen hours, after learning just how much hard work has to go into class preparation, after learning that despite all that the whole lesson plan may fail, after all of that, I’m already in talks with Jackie at Creative Colloquy to teach another class.

Works Cited

Raftery, Brian. “How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community.” Wired, Sept. 2011

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

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