Writing Outside the Lines: on outlines

New writer acquaintance Briana Morgan has a nice post up about the evils* of outlining:

When I started using them [outlines], I felt trapped, bogged down, and nothing like myself. My whole process felt constrained. I suffocated. In my writing workshops, I was taught not to write without outlines. My professors frowned or scowled when I shunned the thought of planning. “You can’t write like that,” they said. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.” Well, they were half-right.

Outlining doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I tried to fit in with other writers who swear by it, but the process felt forced. I was sure that everyone knew I was faking. My productivity ground to a halt. I put so much pressure on myself to do what everyone else was doing, instead of focusing on what worked for me. Since outlining wasn’t working, I must have been doing it wrong.

I don’t outline either…except for when I do. Heh!

Generally, the writing community seems to have settled on two terms to describe the respective camps: Plotters, referring to those who outline (thereby plotting everything in advance), and pantsers, meaning, those who write by the seat of their pants (or overalls, as the case may be).

So, which am I? For the most part, I’m a pantser. I roughly figure out a starting point for the book, come up with a vague idea for what’s generally supposed to happen, and then I start writing. Sometimes I have an idea of structure for the book beforehand (the current Forgotten Stars novel, Princesses III: The Sequel to Get Equal (not the actual title), has three viewpoint characters after two in Book II and just one in Stardancer), but sometimes I don’t even have that much. How can I go on so little? Well…it’s pretty much what I’ve always done. In my experience, my characters will do things on page 300 that I have no idea are even possible on page 30. New ideas will come to be a third of the way through, and I generally find that those new ideas are usually better than whatever I had already planned. A good idea always trumps the plan, if I even had one.

Here’s the thing: when you write a lot, you come to deeply trust the process upon which you’ve settled. I’m such a pantser that I started writing Princesses III: The Wrath of Spock (not the actual title) without even knowing exactly who my main villain was going to be; then, when he suddenly showed up in a scene that surprised me to have a villain in it, I still had no idea just what he was hoping to accomplish. I had to get to know this guy as my characters did. No doubt this may sound like utter lunacy to many writers, but it works for me. My approach to all this mirrors what Stephen King says in the brilliant On Writing:

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

I pretty much completely agree with this. I have a situation: Two Princesses from the planet Gavinar are on their way someplace else but something happens and they wind up on a mysterious planet whose inhabitants see them as fulfillment of prophecy…and they just might be. That’s it. Who are the Princesses? Well, I had to figure that part out. Where’s the planet and what’s the deal with the people living there? Those details showed up, one by one, as I wrote that book and got my Princesses stranded…and then I figured out the planet’s little foibles, some of which I’m still figuring out and being surprised by.

I never would have tried outlining any of that. For Stardancer, I actually did have an idea of how that particular book’s main conflict got resolved in the end, but not so with Princesses II or with Princesses III. I just charged full-speed ahead, because that’s the only way I can work.


Because I do occasionally turn to the outline. Once in a while. Not very often.

And here’s the key: not for very long, in terms of book length.

Sometimes I get stuck, like anybody else. Sometimes I genuinely don’t know what comes next. This actually has two “flavors”, as it were. The first is easy: I get an increasingly persistent sense that I’ve gone in the wrong direction someplace. The fix here isn’t to outline, but rather to backtrack to the most recent spot where I felt things were still going in the right direction and try something else. The second, though, is when I know that what’s happened to this point is right, but I’m just not sure what happens next. Then I might outline a bit, maybe the next few scenes, just to work through some ideas and get a notion of the direction I’m going. This isn’t even always outlining, per se, but mostly a jotting down of ideas.

When I actually sit down to straight-up outline, though, is almost always when I’m nearing the book’s final act and when things are about to get complex. Almost always by this point not only do I know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t do a lot of deviating, either, and if they do, it’s to do something cool that doesn’t really change the “big picture” of the ending. So I outline, very roughly, just to figure out the way the moving parts of the story have to line up: what happens first, what happens second, what this person is doing, how that person will respond, and so on. It’s the writing equivalent of how plumbers will lay out the sections of pipe on the floor, in order, before applying the PVC adhesive or starting to solder things together. That’s it: outlining the sequence, but never the entire story. That, I just can’t do. If I try outlining an entire novel from Chapter 1 to the Epilogue, I can quite simply guarantee that the story will change dramatically by Chapter 5, and the outline will be useless.

And besides…outlining doesn’t feel like writing to me. Outlining always vaguely feels to me like a writing-like activity that doesn’t necessarily lead to actual writing. It feels like all those times on The Brady Bunch when the boys were “fixing” their bikes but rarely riding them anywhere.

So that’s why I don’t outline, except for when I do.

* Outlining isn’t evil. It’s just a practice that some folks do and some don’t.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.