To outline or not to outline

Joe’s Post #74

hamletThat is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of rewrite after rewrite or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by outlining end them.

Thing is, it’s not like there’s a right or wrong answer here. No really. It totally depends on the writer. Both ways – outlining or not outlining – have their good and bad points. Very quickly…

No Outlining – More creativity. Easy to get into the flow of writing scenes. Maximum inspiration. See Writer’s Digest take on it. Downside – You will need to rewrite the whole novel – sometimes more than once – unless you’re super amazing (and there are writers out there like that). It’s a TON of work to rewrite a whole novel. Like remaking a piece of Ikea furniture without instructions and forgetting to attach the noobler to the wookweiner. And then redoing it again cuz like you forgot the wankdinger has to slip inside the bagvik. Yuck, right?

Outlining – Easier to keep a complex plot organized. All sorts of wrongish things can be spotted and fixed. See Joseph Finder‘s take on it. Downside  (a big one) – it can suck the life out of your desire to write that story. Like writing Ikea instructions. In your own blood. While it’s raining. It’s hard, blood-soaked work. And isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

left right brainIt’s the classic left brain vs right brain. Logical, analytical, objective vs intuitive, action-oriented, subjective. Spock vs Kirk.

Now, I’ve tried both outlining and not outlining, but for the last novel, I settled on a hybrid make-a-rough-outline-then-write system. Sort of like a Frankenstein’s monster that tried to marry creation and order. 

That system, which I have dubbed, the ‘it looks like someone threw up sticky notes all over my table’, resulted in a surprisingly hole-filled plot. Oh, I remember the critique well. “Joe, you forgot about Blahblah the Dorfmaster who appeared on page 67 and then was forgotten.” Or, more embarrassingly, “You have no ending. No climax.” Or “You forgot to bring coffee to the critique session.”

Not good. Not good at all.


Now all of these things, (and many, many more), I could have solved by a more detailed outline… but a detailed outline that SOMEONE ELSE READS.

That’s why we’re looking at doing up a detailed outline for our next big 5/5/5 meeting. It’s one thing to write out one of those things, to go through it yourself and try to spot errors or omissions or a propensity to overuse the word ‘blood-soaked’, but another thing entirely to have someone else look at it. Where are the high points, the low points? Is there action or tension or sex in enough scenes? Have I lost a character or two in the journey? Is my plot so tight you could bounce quarters off it?

See, none of us have done a detailed outline and shared it. The hope is that by doing so we’ll learn a little more about plot, character, story-telling, emotion, pacing… well, pretty much everything. I’ve been fortunate enough to critique an outline by a great outliner and have found that I can often get a better idea of the story than if I read the whole novel and certainly better than reading 30 page chunks at a time. It’s like looking at the whole pizza and seeing if it needs more cheese, or pickles or whatever. It’s way easier than judging it from just one bite (or 50 bites over a year).

Who knows if we’ll all turn into dedicated outliners? I suspect Silk will never be one as she is such an amazingly creative person. I suspect Paula, having done such a great job with her last novel, will continue to outline as a way of keeping her from running after shiny new things. Karalee and Helga could go either way.

Me, I’ll just be happy to try something new.

What I hope, though, is that I’ll become a better story-teller like the guys who wrote Up. Sadly, I’m still a lot more like Dug the dog.


7 thoughts on “To outline or not to outline

  1. I think that as an exercise and an experiment, the group doing a detailed outline is a great idea – and that should be something you think about for the group – maybe part of its reason for being is to force you as individual writers to try things with your writing that you might not otherwise attempt. If it turns out it works for you, you’re ahead of the game, whatever it is, and you’ve been forced to grow, to stretch and to experiment.

    As to outlining – I’m not suggesting your group change your objectives for this, but I thought Elizabeth’s idea of keeping a running outline through the writing was a brilliant idea, just because you can keep track of those plot holes and fill them in as you write – and you can keep the freshness of the things that grow out of writing at the limits of your headlights. I also don’t think that outlining will eliminate the need for rewriting and revising, not if you’re really being creative and honest.

    Either way, I don’t think outlining is a bad way to go, as long as you don’t cast it in stone and concrete and you allow the creative act of writing the scenes to change the outline if something wonderful happens, as it so often does.

  2. Oddly, I tend to get more inspired to write and more creative when I have a scene-by-scene outline. It works better for me. But then I do have a problem chasing shiny things.

  3. I know Sean is a very serious outliner, but that’s his writing process. Everyone has their own way. I think it will be a good exercise for you esp since you said you typically don’t do that. You might discover something about yourself.

  4. My DNA rejects outlines, but my years of trial work can spot an inconsistency 200 pages back. With everything on computer, all you have to do is remember a key word and click SEARCH. You’ll find exactly what you wrote and where you wrote it. You can remain consistent, or change what you wrote to accommodate a new idea.

    A very general outline, or a summary or “treatment,” can be useful if you’re not sure where you’ll end up, or you know where you want to end up, but aren’t quite sure how to get there.

    I can’t write a detailed outline and be creative, not in fiction. If I can write a detailed outline, the story is conventional, predictable, and not worth writing. I’m bemoaning my lack of creative organization, not trumpeting by creative brilliance. 😕

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