Something occurred to me after publishing my previous piece about organizing data on a forthcoming writing project (Welcome to the Fold — sorry, no subsite for it just yet). There, I talked about how I wasn't crazy about, e.g., character sheets where you plug the key attributes of your characters into a bunch of blank fields.
A bunch of different things bugged me about this approach: it's not my template most of the time (I solved that by creating my own, but it was still a template); too often such approaches end up dictating the direction of the work; and when they're deployed as part of a general paint-by-numbers approach to such work, you still get paint-by-numbers results.
My way of working around all this was to think a little differently about the whole point of setting up a wiki for such a project. Timelines and factual information are fine; most any story will benefit from having those fiddly little details nailed down and kept somewhere authoritative. But the more complicated, human stuff, like characters and their behaviors, the larger meaning of the story — how to deal with all that without simply writing something that ends up encapsulating the work and dictating its direction?
The answer I came up with was to think of the wiki as a kind of critique of the work, where instead of trying to define what it is, exclusively, you're talking about how it is about what it is. I know, putting this into words has driven me about as nuts as it's driving you, but that's as close as I can get to it for now.
Why I'm choosing to do it this way is manifold. For one, I'm trying to avoid falling back on talking about the work as a substitute for working on it. It's too easy to get caught up in the details of creating your world — a lot of which never make it to the page — instead of actually telling the story that the details are there to support. If you're Werner Herzog and you want your actors to feel like they're in the jungle, you take them to the jungle for real (and endure unbelievable hardships as a result), but not every writer has to pull a J.R.R. Martin and write the 267 interlocking mythologies featured in his story's world, of which only five are actually mentioned in any detail. (What would we call that, I wonder — the "voodoo of backstory"? Another Werner Herzog reference there for you.)
The other reason I'm taking this approach is so that when I do write the thing, I don't feel like I'm just filling in a bunch of blanks. That was another reason I used to avoid outlining like a vegan steering clear of an Arby's: the process always felt like simply creating a bunch of blanks to be filled in by me at a later date. Bo-ring. Also, when you write anything at the sentence-by-sentence level, down at the ground, you see things in it that you never saw when you were up in the chapter-by-chapter stratosphere.
In time, though, I did had to ask myself: was that a valid reason to do no outlining at all? No, I knew it wasn't; it was just the most useful excuse to preserve my romanticism about the process. The process doesn't have to be romantic, but the outcome should never lose the romance that motivated you to engage in the process in the first place.
Maybe by the third time I write about this subject I won't be so annoyingly abstract.