Tag Archives: Outlining

Outlining – Why Bother?

Finding time and energy to write can be difficult enough. If you’re going to add a step to the creative process–one that itself has some disadvantages, as I discussed last week–you’re going to need to get some serious benefits from it.

But in this case, outlining has a ton of things going for it, and some of them directly counteract the effects of the disadvantages. A good outline makes a better book, and makes it easier to get the damn thing written. An outline is a good deal all around.

The number one advantage of an outline is that it is the number one way to defeat writer’s block. Now, I’m one of those who refuses to buy that writer’s block even exists; it’s a convenient excuse, and one that I’ve readily used myself in the past. But when your writing is stalled, I think it’s a sign not that you’re blocked, but that you need to do more thinking.

And that is exactly what the outline forces you to do: get your thinking out of the way early on. You have already gone through the process of figuring out who does what, and when, and why. You’ve already got those scenes mapped out, to some level. And by separating the thinking from the writing means that instead of getting blocked, you can get to the fun part of making the scenes come alive.

But an outline can do even better than this. You have probably had the experience of sitting down to write, and watching the cursor blink for a few minutes before you really get down to the business of making another cup of tea. And maybe petting the cat for a while, and doing some dishes, and painting the porch.

What I’m saying is that writing is often a matter of momentum. When you sit down, it can be really hard to get back into the scene, and to remember what the next paragraph, the next line, the next word was going to be. Each time you return to your manuscript, you’re resetting your mind completely.

An outline gets you past that. It was written by you, as a guide to writing the book; it’s probably the best possible way to get your mind back into the groove. I found that my writing speed picked up immensely without having to wait for the right idea to reintroduce itself to my frontal lobes.

I’m not the only one, either. An outline is the number one piece of advice from SFF Rachel Aaron, who created a sensation a while ago with her blog post (and later e-book) about going from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day. Read it, and check out her e-book as well. If you’re struggling to increase your output, you’ll definitely want to take a look at her advice.

So outlining helps with the day-to-day task of putting words on the page. But it is also, of course, a big picture tool. How many times have you found yourself halfway through a novel, wishing you’d taken just a slightly different approach to that character? How many times have you had to go back and shoehorn a brand new scene into an already completed part of the book?

If you’re outlining, it’s easy to do those things: you go back to the earlier part of the outline and change it. Add a chapter, add six chapters, move things all around if you like. And if you discover that you could add something awesome but that would need wholesale changes throughout the manuscript, you can do that too.

So the outline has a lot going for it: it can make you a better writer in many, many ways. However, as we’ve discussed before, an outline can also have its disadvantages. So next time I’ll tell you the secret to outlining, the thing that made me the outliner I am today: finding your outlining level.

Outlining – Why Aren’t You Already Using One?

So I’ve already admitted to being a planner, not a pantser myself. But even if you’ve never written with an outline before, you have probably wondered about it. You might have read an article on it or heard a talk from a successful author about it. Lots of authors swear by the technique. Why don’t you?Plan1

For myself, some of my first few attempts at writing novels started with an outline. Sometimes the outline was a point-by-point breakdown of the plot of the novel; sometimes it was just a couple of paragraphs explaining what would happen in the novel, and when, and why.

These novels never got written – and in many cases never even got started.

In my experience, and for many other writers I’ve discussed this with, this is the primary drawback to writing with an outline. They rob you of momentum. They steal the magic from the process of writing.

And you can even lose that momentum halfway through writing the plan for a novel. By the two-thirds point, you hit the wall and there’s no coming back. You don’t care about the characters any more, you don’t care about the ending, you just want out. And you file that outline away, and never look at it again.

Sometimes, though, you’ll actually finish an outline, and maybe even draft the book from the outline. It might be a short story or a novella, and maybe you did it for an event like a novel marathon or NaNoWriMo. But the book lacks something; it’s too rigid, too mechanical.

I know a novelist of some fame who is an avid outliner; he writes extremely detailed breakdowns of each part of the novel, to the point where every single scene is described in detail before the first draft starts.

I’ll confess that I don’t like his novels. For me, they are clockwork novels; everything is so formally constructed that the twists and turns aren’t interesting and the big reveals are always telegraphed. It feels like a slog to get through the books. I like the author very much, but his books leave me a bit cold.

His novels strike me as the product of too much planning and outlining. And that’s the second major problem with outlines: sometimes the novel feels like it was built to serve the outline, not the other way round.

So these are what I see as the major drawbacks to writing outlines. We can all agree that a non-fiction book needs an outline – especially publishers, who don’t offer a contract without reading an outline first. With fiction, there needs to be a little bit of the unknown, a little bit of magic – a little bit of art – in the books you write.

And if an outline dims that spark of magic, you’re better off writing without one.

Although there are many advantages to writing with an outline. We’ll talk about those next.

Outlining Your Novel: Yes, I’m an Outliner

Plan1The 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.