Saturday, May 4, 2013

Outlining: A Love-Hate Relationship

When starting a new writing project, should you make an outline or not? This is something that I have personally gone round and round about at different times. Clearly, there are advantages to writing an outline.

First off, you have a clear picture of how the whole story will unfold before you ever type the first word. This way you don’t get to page 100 and realize, let’s say, that it was actually the school teacher that kidnapped the president, and you should have been dropping hints all along the way. Now you have to go back and work these details in, which can be a lot of work and lead to inconsistencies if you don’t pay close attention and edit well. I’ve even had to go back and add in whole characters when I didn’t plan well. Not an easy task.

Another advantage of an outline is that you have a quick reference of your whole book at a glance. This can be helpful for submitting to agents and publishers, especially if you are trying to write the ever daunting synopsis. It can also be helpful when you think of something you want to change, but can’t remember what chapter Aunt Sue lit her hair on fire. It saves a lot of time from paging through the manuscript to find it. Admittedly, though, an outline for these purposes can be drafted as you write the book or even after it is complete.

Image by Stuart Miles
Something everyone tends to be short on is time, and writing an outline lets you do all, or at least a good chunk of the planning work up front. From it, you can write faster and have a better idea if the work is worth writing at all before you even start.

So with all of these advantages to outlining a book at the onset, why am I bothering to write this post? Shouldn’t it just be: Outlining – Do It! And I end the post right there? Well, to me, it’s been far from so simple. I have tried several times when starting a new book to outline the entire plot and subplots before I started chapter one. What I got had mixed results.

Once, I spent several days outlining a book that I was so entranced with I couldn’t stop thinking out it. As soon as I completed the outline I instantly lost interest in the project. For a long time, I thought the outlining had ruined it for me. As I reflect now, I think that I realized that my story wasn’t as interesting and complex as I imagined in vague snippets in my head, so it was a good thing I didn’t waste my time writing the whole book.

Another book I outlined went differently. I finished the outline, thinking that I had a pretty solid book and went to work writing it, still enthused about the project. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the plot looked a lot more interesting all condensed in bare-bones outline form. Once I tried to flesh it out and write the story around the outline, I found that my plot was pretty skeletal. When I ditched the outline and just wrote the story from scratch, it filled in remarkably. This book still needs some major re-writes, but it’s not a lack of outlining that was the problem, but rather my lack of adequate vision until after I’d written it and set it aside for several months.

For a long time, my bad experiences with outlining, and the challenge they can be to write, made me think that I was better off not trying.

My most recent book that I am working on now, currently called TEMPO (you’ll hear more about this in the future, I am sure), has taught me a different lesson. This is, by far, the longest and most complex book I have written to date. I knew when I started that I had to outline, or I would get lost. I didn’t just make a skeletal and dry outline, I wrote a 29 page outline. When I thought of a line of dialogue or a perfect description or analogy, I wrote it in so I could include it in the final book. This kept it creative and interesting. I found that I really enjoyed the process because I got to discover what happens in my story, which is one of the most exciting parts, quickly. The process took a couple of weeks.

I feared that once I finished the outline, like my previous experience, I would lose interest in the book. On the contrary, I was anxious to start crafting my exciting plot-twisting tale into beautiful and full scenes, characters, and descriptions. Crafting language is fun, and I now knew that I had a great story to mold it into.

I am currently about one quarter of the way through the first draft, and it has been a great experience. I have made changes, which I update the outline to reflect, but they mainly deal with detail and pacing rather than substance.

Simultaneously, I'm re-editing IN AN INSTANT to finalize the manuscript. That is a book I did not outline, and that hasn't really been a problem except that I have frequently gone back to add new scenes that broaden understanding of the characters journey and the meaning of the book. But, I think that nothing short of time and experience would have brought those to light for me. With or without an outline, I would still be adding to this captivating and heart-wrenching novel.

So, my final verdict is: Outline! If you lose interest in the project afterwards, it probably wasn’t worth writing. If you’re having trouble writing from it, then it’s not complete enough and needs more work. I am positive I will outline all of my future books with scary-long outlines like the 29-page monster I am working from now for TEMPO.

Still, if an outline is preventing you from getting started, then forget it and just write. The most important part of writing isn't an outlineit's passion. As long as you have passion, you're writing is well worth the effort and will move your readers to feel, know, love, and hate right along with you.

Happy writing!


  1. I have never liked outlines. When I was in school I would write the paper and then go back and write the outline from it to turn in when an outline was required. Then all I had to do was revise and edit the paper I had already written. I just couldn't see the outline before the paper was written.
    I have started writing a book recently and was getting lost, so I wrote and outline. When I started writing from the outline, it got me going, but wasn't working when I was actually writing, so I changed the outline and started writing again. I am once again about to change the outline. These are BIG changes, but my manuscript keeps progressing, so I guess the outline is serving its purpose. In the end, I think a writer should do whatever it takes to get the project done.

    1. Haha. That's so funny. I used to do the same thing in school, but I didn't know that you did. Yeah, I think the key with outlines is to use them as long as they are useful, but not get stressed about them.

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