To Outline or Not To Outline

Prolific novelist Sandra Scoppettone has hit a wall in her new book.

I think I’m in big trouble.  This novel is a mess. I’m on page 142
and not only don’t I know what’s going on, I can’t imagine writing at
least another 250 pages of this.

Nothing makes sense.  I’ve written myself into so many corners I can’t see how to ever write out of them.

If
it wasn’t so depressing, and if I didn’t have a deadline, I think I’d
junk this novel and start again.  I honestly don’t know what I’m going
to do.  I should be working right now but instead I’m doing this.

I
feel I’ve been fooling myself, thinking it would work itself out.  I
don’t see how it can.  I’ve never been in quite this position so early
in a book.

I don’t know whether she writes with an outline or not, but I’m guessing she doesn’t. Novelist Ed Gorman wishes he could outline…but can’t.

The few times I’ve managed to fix an outline on both the page and in my
mind, I was more relaxed with the writing itself. I didn’t wake up in
the middle of the night depressed because I couldn’t figure out what
next day at the machine would bring.

Novelist James Reasoner always has a vague sketch of where he is going.

Although taking off and winging it with no outline can be fun . . . if
everything works out right. These days I like a nice six to eight page
outline so that the basic structure of the book has already been
figured out before I start. I usually write these even for books where
the publisher doesn’t require an outline, just for my own benefit.

All
that said, I don’t think I’ve ever written a book that turned out
exactly like the outline. Some unexpected plot twist or character
always pops up during the writing of the book itself.

That’s the way it goes for me, too. I find the security blanket of an outline, even if I deviate from it along the way (and I do), always helps me. At least I can look at it and say, "Okay, I had an idea of where I should be going, why am I not heading in that direction? What changed? And did it change for the better?" My outlines tend to evolve as my novels do…I call them "living outlines," because I am constantly rewriting them as I write the book and usually don’t finish my outline until a week or so before I finish my book.

Sometimes it’s fun for me to go back and look at the original outline and then the one I ended up with and see at what points I went in new directions… and why. I always learn from it.

UPDATE: Sandra Scoppettone reports on her blog that she doesn’t use an outline…and here’s why:

I
couldn’t stand to have an outline.  The idea of knowing where I’m going
is hideous to me.  Anyway, I couldn’t write an outline when I never
know who did it until I’m at about page 100.  I don’t want to know who
did it when I start.  It would spoil everything for me just as if I was
reading a book and knew who did it from the beginning.  Before I start
I know who my protagonist is (in this case I know a lot about her
because it’s the second in a series) and who has been killed.  That has
always worked for me before.  And now it’s failed me.  I still won’t do
an outline.

Frankly, I can’t imagine writing a mystery, and planting clues, without knowing whodunit ahead of time.

I’m curious, fellow writers… how do you feel about outlines?

2 thoughts on “To Outline or Not To Outline

  1. Anymore, I outline a novel. I just can’t risk not knowing where I’m going with it.
    That said, more often than not, the outline and the finished product bear little resemblence to each other.

  2. The current book (my fourth, all unpublished) has gone through several outlines, and now I’m in the process of installing a wall chart with color-coded index cards over my desk (I just wrote about it, with art, on my blog). I *need* to keep track of where the story’s going, because now that I’m about 40K in, I’m backtracking and plugging in clues and revising characters. And when I’m forced to drop the book for awhile due to other commitments, I can pick it up again a little easier.
    These past few years have been full of little lessons in the mechanics of plotting. At Terry Pratchett’s lecture in DC, he spouted several nuggets that are pinned to the wall over my desk, like:
    * “80 percent of writing is getting the stuff out of your head”
    * “Texture is what we’re looking for. Texture is everything that isn’t the plot. The plot is not particularly important if you get the texture right.”
    He also mentioned that he writes the back cover blurb when he’s a tenth of the way into the book, because if he didn’t know what the book was about, neither would the reader. He also writes the ending one-third of the way in. “I won’t use that ending, but it gives me something to aim for.”
    Yeah, obvious I know, but I needed the obvious (as well as 10ccs of self-confidence).

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