Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best-Laid Plans: Outlining

Every writer has answered the question at least once--panster or plotter?

I'm sure there is no right way--maybe there are more efficient ways, or ways that produce more creative twists, or, most likely, ways that are the most right for each individual.  In college I had a roommate who literally outlined every paper down to the paragraph.  Beautiful, typed, complete outlines, and they took forever to create--but the actual paper-writing part was shortened because she already knew what she was going to say.  Me?  I never outlined more than what was in my head already.  Even my thesis outline was pretty much section titles and quick notes.  (I think that drove my advisor batty.)

Still, a novel isn't a five-page essay, a twenty-page paper, or even a thesis.  Despite that, I pantsed at first.  It was what I knew, and what worked for me.  You know what?  It worked for writing novels, too.  Just not very well.

That is, I doubled back a lot.  I struggled to figure out what was missing--sections fell flat, or characters seemed to float in and out a bit too conveniently.  Revision was an arduous process because it was only when the project was complete that I had a full view of point A to point B in the storyline.  There was no pre-laid roadmap to see where the potential detours and road blocks were going to derail the story (and how's that for mixing metaphors?).

So I decided to outline.  I was worried--would it squelch my creative process to outline?  Would I abandon the joy of discovering midway through writing an awesome idea or a great character who wouldn't fit in my outline?  Gulp--but I had to try.

I got a big pretty notebook:

And for my next project sat in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and did this:

Ugly?  Oh yeah.  Nothing like my friend's immaculate typed outlines.  Mine have squiggles and arrows and boxes and giant parentheses and are probably indecipherable to anyone but me.

But you know what?  All those squiggles and arrows and other inked ephemera make this exactly the kind of outline I need--it's a basic roadmap, but it's still part of the creative process.  It's not about stuffing the story into a rigid box, but letting it develop and branch out and sprout naturally--a lot like pantsing, but in a condensed format.  I include the highlights--the parts where the plot needs to turn or develop--but leave the details to emerge in the writing itself.  This lets me be surprised while I'm writing--and being surprised is one of my favorite parts of writing!

Even though I dreaded trying outlining, it's now one of my favorite moments in the process--when I get to open up my big blue notebook and brainstorm, make notes, and create a map for the novel-to-be.

My ugly outline probably (definitely!) isn't for everyone.  What about you--do you outline?  Are they neat, clean, complete outlines, or more rough sketches?  Or do you toss the map out the window (or turn off the writing GPS) and let yourself write by the seat of your pants?


  1. I'm more of a pantser. Though with the next novel I plan to write (once I'm done editing the current WIP), the scenes have already been coming to mind--so I'm jotting them in a chaotic mess in my little notebook. So who knows, maybe I'm changing.

  2. I used to be a panster, but I've gradually turned into a plotter. It helps me be more accountable (ha!) I don't usually write things down though, but I have worked it out in my head. Of course, plot lines are always subject to change!

  3. PLOTTER. The first few times I tried NaNo, I tried to be a pantser because pretty much everything on the official site is about how you need to just make everything up as you go along in order to fill up the 50k words, but I eventually realized that this was good advice for people who'd never considered writing before and not me. Nowadays I do outlines in Xcel, with a column for the heroine's plot and others for villains, other political factions, natural disasters, etc.

  4. I make an outline very similar to yours - only I plot it on a timeline with chapters as each entry. I start at the end, then go to the beginning and fill in major events. It isn't very detailed, and always changes as I write, but it is very helpful.

  5. Connie--writing down ideas and inspiration as they come is a great idea. I do the same (when I remember!) in my big blue notebook.

    Caroline--it does help with accountability, doesn't it, to know that you "owe" your novel its next scene!

    Cassidy--I've never done NANO, but I could see it being *harder* to churn out 50K in a month without some pre-planning! At least for me. I overthink stuff lol. Using excel--great idea! I've never considered that, but it could really be helpful for organizing ideas!

    Melodie--I like the end to beginning strategy!