If you’re a writer, I don’t have to tell you about one of the most hotly debated topics in all of writing: to outline or not to outline.
I’m not here to preach my gospel of outlining (although I do highly recommend :)), but I am here to get down on my knees and praise God that some genius invented this concept in the first place. Because honestly? I think it’s just saved my WIP.
I never used to outline when I was younger. Then again, I only worked on shorter pieces: short stories, poetry, song lyrics. I could get away with being a “pantser” with those. Eventually, though, I moved on to attempting novels — and the key word here is attempt, because I always failed to see these projects through to the end. I’d run into road blocks with the story, I’d run out of steam… all the classic signs of not knowing my story well enough, and I know for a fact that, for me, this could have been solved by outlining.
Fast forward fifteen or so years later, when I started writing multi-chapter works in fan fiction. By then, I’d started devouring writing books, especially ones on plotting and story structure, and I started to think that there might be something to this outlining thing. So I started doing it. Little by little, at first, because I honestly thought I was allergic to outlines. I started by jotting down key milestones in the story, then I moved on to sketching out dialogue or sketching out key scenes. These worked great for me in fan fiction, and I thought that I had finally found the system that worked for me–something that gave me some semblance of structure, but wasn’t so demanding that I would need to come up with every detail up front.
There was only one problem: it didn’t work with my original projects. I found I needed something far more substantial with those, because in contrast to fan fiction, where I was already intimately familiar with the details of that world, with original material, I was still getting to know my world and my character — and getting familiar with the playground I was playing in on top of trying to manage all of the different factors that go into writing (dialogue, characterization, pacing, structure) was becoming so overwhelming that my process slowed down to a snail’s pace. As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, it took me 6 years to finish the first draft for my first novel; looking back on it, much of why it took so long to complete that first draft was because I didn’t take the time to outline and really know my world and characters inside and out.
When it came time to start my current novel, I thought I had learned a few things from the process of writing the first one, and I could just dive right in and happily write away. Wrong. By chapter 2, I had already stalled. This time, I knew I had to do some more serious outlining, because I was not willing to spend another 6 years writing this novel.
Enter K.M. Weiland’s fantastic Outlining Your Novel. She described an approach to outlining that was so easy — and fun — that for the first time, I was able to crank out a detailed outline that had me visualizing the entire story down to each scene. And because of this, I was able to look at my story in its entirety before I ever started writing it out, which meant that I could spot any weak links before I’d already spent a ton of effort (not to mention poured in blood, sweat, tears) into writing those scenes.
And spot them, I did. In the process of having some writer friends look over my outline, I was already able to detect some fatal flaws towards the end, which led to me cutting out a character completely and re-imagining my storyline’s crisis moment. Had I already written everything out, this would have been a far more painful — and messy — process. But thankfully, I caught them at this stage, which means all I need to do is remove the scenes I’d planned that involved that new defunct character and rework the story progression so I have a much stronger crisis moment.
Will it be easy? No. Is it easier than cutting out thousands of words and trying to come up with a way to stitch together new scenes with existing ones and making it all flow naturally? Hell to the yes.
After this experience, I can honestly say that I’m a believer. Outlines, ftw!
P.S. In addition to Outlining Your Novel, I also have to give props to three other plotting books that I’ve found to be invaluable: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen. If you’re interested at all in outlining and/or story structure, I can’t say enough good things about these!