Actual Writing Advice: Outlining or No?

Before I get started, please come back tomorrow for a photo prompt by Julie Schober and Wednesday for a guest blog about query letters by Holly Jennings.

I thought I’d spoken about this in a previous blog, but going through even the old blog, I didn’t see any mention of outlines. So here goes.

I think everyone outlines, but not everyone does it in the traditional way. In the music world, there are composers like Stravinsky who have to sit at the piano and play a few measures then write it down. Play a few more measures and write it down. Then there are composers like Beethoven who hear it all in their head and write it down without ever checking what they’ve written on an instrument. There are also musicians who improvise a song on the spur of the moment with their instrument without ever writing a single note. What they all have in common is knowing the form, structure and rules of music before they even start. They have an outline in their head even if it’s not written down. No matter what style they are creating in, there is a form to go with it. If they’re writing a hymn, the chord sequence is firm and has little wiggle room. A jazz piece is looser with chord progressions, but there is a definite arc the piece needs to follow, and so on.

When writers sit down, we know roughly the structure our story needs to take, or we should. We need to have a hook and inciting incident in the beginning. We need to have the main character try and fail, try and fail several times. We need a climax followed by a denouement. Some writers jot down what each chapter is going to be about from the beginning of the novel to the end. After the layout of the novel is done, they go back and do an outline of each chapter, showing what characters are in it and what’s the main problem. Some people take it even further: they do spreadsheets that allow them to track how many times each character appears, they draw arcs for each plotline to see when they resolve and track the themes. They are able to use the outlines and spreadsheets to remove extraneous characters and motifs. I think of them as composers like Stravinsky.

My brain doesn’t sort in that manner. Some would call me a “panster” and say that I wing it. But I disagree. Being a panster or winging it implies that I have no idea of where I need to take the story and am hoping on dumb luck to get me to something good in the end. I prefer to think of myself as being more of a Beethoven kind of writer but with more deleting than he probably did: I see the story in my head before it hits the paper. I’d say about sixty percent of my writing is mental. I think about the arcs, the problems, the characters, all the things that people who outline think about and write down. I imagine scenes in my head and various outcomes. Where would the character go if this or that happened? Sometimes before I even write the first chapter, I have various scenes worked out in my mind throughout the novel. Some burn and burn in my head until I finally write it out. Others never even get on the page.

So why don’t I write down my outline? I used to. I’d get about a third of the way through the book with an outline and get bored. So I’d start the book and find that what appeared to be clearly cut and dry in the outline, was not what the characters should or would do at all. The story would be completely changed by the time I reached the third chapter and that lovely outline would be scrapped. It seemed when I outlined, I spent much more time concerned about tying everything up with a bow rather than character interactions.

Some people would say the time spent outlining was still valuable. They may be right. But to me it was a waste of time because I could not get to know the characters at all by saying they will do A, B and C and poof story done. My solution to the problem was to start imagining character backgrounds, but those quickly turned into full-fledged stories. I have a trilogy about a character named Gwen that I would love to finish, but I’m going to have to write several backstories for the world before I can even restart the first book in the trilogy again. And all those backstories are going to be novel length. I’d try to shorten it and just outline it, but I know the world would be richer if I know how all the other characters played out.

So maybe I’m not like Beethoven at all. Maybe I’m an over meticulous Stravinsky who fills out the outlines so much that they are fully realized stories. Honestly, I enjoy finding out what really happens to a character and what she thinks about. New events crop up that would’ve never occurred to me in an outline. The backstory of Gwen’s world is vastly different now from when the concept was conceived a decade ago. Many themes are still the same and the main idea of the world is the same, but the way the family has interacted with the rest of the world has had a bigger impact. And some characters who were supposed to play only a minor part, have taken the forefront.

I think people who outline have an edge on me because I think they see their stories more clearly and can save time by cutting out chapters in an outline before writing out the long chapter. But I love my process, and in the often grueling pursuit of being published, I find I hang onto the things that bring me the most enjoyment rather than precision.