On Outlining

I’d meant to get this out in October, but we got busy with Scouting and popcorn, and then we ping ponged illnesses around the house for a couple of weeks, so this is going to be my November post, instead.

I hated outlining.  I think I can blame school for that.  Most of my teachers who had assigned some sort of writing project (book report, essay, etc.) wanted you to turn in an outline before you ever started writing your paper.  I’ve always been an organic, or discovery, writer.  The outlines pissed me off for 2 main reasons:

  1. I had to figure out, in advance, the entirety of what I was going to write and the order I was going to write it in.
  2. I was then compelled to follow that outline when I got ready to write.

Since the outline was usually due far before the writing assignment, often without a lot of advance notice, that didn’t give much time to plan out what you were going to write.  It was even worse if it was something that required research.  Then, you were stuck with an outline for a topic that wasn’t fully researched that you were stuck following when you actually got ready to write the damn thing.  I hated those pre-outlined writing assignments.

Fast forward to the present.  I wrote my first novel Three (working title) without the

English: Book and apparatus for writing. Engra...

English: Book and apparatus for writing. Engraving (prints). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

use of an outline.  Well, I sort of had an outline, but it was in my head.  I knew pretty well what was going to happen, although some things changed along the way.  After all, if it’s good enough for Stephen King not to outline, it’s good enough for me. 

Or so I thought.  That novel is a disaster and is going to require extensive rewriting.  I started my second novel the same way.  I quickly started getting off track.  So, I sat back and rethought the outlining angle.  Around the same time, I read an excellent article on Novel-Writing-Help.com.  You can read it here.  There were a couple of points that jumped out at me.

Under Step 10. Write the First Draft:

“If you choose to skip all the planning material above and jump straight into the writing, that is okay. Chances are, though, the first draft will end up being a structural disaster zone - and you will then have to apply all my planning techniques to it during the twelfth step: revision.”


Under Step 11. Revise WHAT You Have Said

“The good news? If you did plenty of planning before you wrote the novel's first draft (like I advised) there will actually be very little to do here.

“(What if you pretty much skipped all the planning and wrote the novel by the seat of your pants (i.e. you made it up as you went)? Then you will have a LOT of work to do here. Unless you are a genius, the first draft will be a complete mess, and your job is now to go through all the planning steps above in order to make sense of everything.)”

So, you can plan out your work ahead of time -- outlining, note taking, character development, and all that jazz -- or you can just start to write.  With the first option, you’ll already have worked out major plot points, seen problems ahead of time, and can make adjustments rather easily.  Both options are going to require rewrites, but the latter much more so, and more time spent overall.

So, I stopped my work on Parts (that 2nd novel), and outlined the thing.  It took me a day or two.  I worked out the order of how things were going to happen.  Got in some of the dialog I wanted to see in there.  Worked through a couple of sticky plot points (and had to make some changes).  So, I decided I’d try and write to my outline, but I with the following caveats.  I would:

  1. Give myself permission to veer off from the outline.  If the writing started going someplace else, I would go with it, and then see which was better:  the outlined version or the inspired version.
  2. Give myself permission to change the outline as needed.  If the inspired version worked better than the outlined version and didn’t set up any problems that I couldn’t work through, then I would adjust the outline to take into account the new material.
  3. If stuff popped into my brain, I’d see if I could work them into my outline.  If not, I’d just write the notes or scene and throw it into an orphaned scenes folder in Scrivener and see if something came of it later.

By doing that, I discovered three things:

  1. I had an easier time actually writing the novel, because I’d already worked out what was supposed to happen and when.
  2. I was able to slow down and enjoy the writing more.  Before, I was rushing through the writing, afraid I’d forget what I’d set out to write and what I had rattling around in my noggin.  Afterwards, I didn’t have to worry about it, because I had it all outlined out and kept open in the top pane of Scrivener while I wrote in the bottom pane.  By slowing down, I’m able to get more of the details down on the first round.
  3. I was basically outlining all along but doing so poorly.  I was trying to carry the outline around in my head.  That rush through the writing was sort of like a super outline, but more problematic because the writing of it was way more spread out, and I forgot things (details, for example).   And without a proper, not-in-my-head outline, I didn’t have a good reference that I could look at quickly and easily.

So, I got Parts all outlined out, and it was coming along fairly well.  It’ll still need revising, but less so than it would have without the outline.  Yes, I did say, “…was coming along…” as in past tense.  I’ve set it aside for the time being as I work to finish illustrating for the 1st Derrick and Max book.  Then, I’m planning to illustrate the already-written 2nd Derrick and Max, and then I have a few shorts rattling around that I’m thinking of making into a collection.  After that, I’ll probably get back to Parts.  Oh, and those other works – I outlined them ahead of time.  And the writing has gone really smoothly. 

I hope this helps some of you out there.  What about you?  Are you a planner or someone who just jumps into the writing?  What were your experiences when it came time to edit?

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