A Word About Outlines

A fellow aspiring novelist, @professorbeej, recently blogged about how outlines didn’t work for him. He had assumed he’d needed an outline for a long and complicated undertaking, such as a novel, but got tied up in too much detailing. In the end, he chucked his outline and finished the first draft of his novel by using a note-taking app on his smartphone and reminded writers that there isn’t a right way and wrong way to do things.

I agree. Everyone’s process is different. Some folks have spreadsheets devoted to each character detailing back story, plot points, etc. Others write by the seat of their pants. Anything goes as long as it works. There’s no law that says you have to have an outline when constructing a novel.

But, truthfully, I would have been lost without mine.

I didn’t start outlining my novel until I was about 100 pages in. Until then, I was blissfully writing scenes as they came to me, with not a worry about how everything would be woven together down the road.

Things changed when I got down the road. I found that the editor in me needed to know how characters were related, how they’d meet, how the pieces of the puzzle were going to fit together, in order to keep writing purposefully.

I always knew the ending of Baby Grand — the last line or two. That’s how this book got past the 30-page mark — the point at which all my previous novels seemed to peter out. But if knowing the ending got me through the first third of the book, having an outline got me through the difficult middle chapters. The editor in me had to be sure I wasn’t wasting my time writing superfluous scenes. That’s my process. I didn’t need much for each chapter synopsis, just a couple of sentences, enough to let me know where that chapter was supposed to start and end, and what was important to remember. That’s where an outline came in very handy.

Nothing fancy. I’ve read lots of articles that recommend all kinds of apps for outlining, which made me realize how much of a dinosaur I am. My outline was created in a Word doc about a month ago, printed out and has been sitting beside me the entire time. Quite frankly, it’s turning into a bit of a mess, since I keep scribbling new ideas and plot developments into the margins. Sure, it’s old school, but it works for me.

I truly believe that anyone can start a novel. It’s finishing it that’s hard. And without an outline, I know I wouldn’t have been able to get even this far: 189 pages and counting.

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