The argument about whether you should outline your work before you write it or not has almost become a religious war. Both sides are utterly convinced of their correctness, and both sides are in fact correct.
Creative writing is difficult enough without deciding in advance what will work or not work for you. There’s no magic bullet, nothing that will get your book written except writing words, nothing that will get your books to improve except editing and learning and writing more. Those are the only absolutes.
However, the argument about outlining has become so polarized that it’s worth considering whether either side is completely right. In fact, up to a few manuscripts ago, I was not an outliner in any serious way.
I had a rough outline for my novel L.M.F. that was about twenty lines long – I listed where each chapter took place and what major incident took place there. And that one had a fragmented timeline, with two timelines presented in parallel, and the earlier one ending at the point where the later one began. It was complicated enough, and I was new enough to novel-writing, that I needed a rough guide.
But for the novels after L.M.F., I didn’t even put that much thought into what would happen. I would sometimes make some notes when I was done about what would happen in the next scene, or in the rest of the current scene, when I was finishing my writing session and putting the pen down. Otherwise, I relied on the novel’s premise and my own understanding of my characters to figure out how to push the story forward.
The first change, for me, was when I embarked on a novel that had four different points of view. (Not published yet – but someday.) With four interlocking stories, I had to make sure I was balancing them well enough; was Stan in too much, or Zsolt in too little? When did I need to have this crisis, or that one? It took a bit of care and planning, and an outline was absolutely crucial. I ended up making a few handwritten pages of notes in the back of a notebook to get that one done.
Around the same time I was struck with an idea for a science fiction novel. (Not published yet – but someday.) The concept, the characters, and the entire story hit me all at once. I sat down and over two days completed a 9,000-word outline for the book. I started working on it right away, and in five months, writing only on lunch hours and coffee breaks, I had finished the 90,000-word manuscript.
That was the point where I became an outliner, for every book I wrote. I even plot out the general points of a story when I’m writing a shorter piece. But everything has its own document somewhere in Google Docs or Evernote that I can open up, skim through, and figure out what happens next.
So in the religious war, you can put me on the side of the outliners. But I’m still agnostic enough to accept that it might not work for everyone. So if you’re an outliner, what drawbacks do you have to keep in mind as you work? If you’re not, should you consider doing it?
Next time: the problems with writing an outline – all the reasons you haven’t done it before.