One question that often comes up in my writers’ workshop is should an author outline their novel before writing or just wing it. The answer is, of course, there is no answer. Writing is personal—you put so much of yourself into the words. That’s why it hurts to have a project rejected. The act of writing is equally personal. There is no right or wrong way. My advice is to try both methods, outlining and not outlining, and see which works for you.
I outlined my first novel in the standard outline form with clipped, structured sentences—first this happens, then that happens, etc. But when it came time to write the book, I found it difficult to follow such a strict format. My characters balked at what I was forcing them to do because I hadn’t considered their evolving personalities. I felt stifled, unable to let my imagination run free.
So with my second book, I just started writing and let the pieces fall where they may. It was exciting to face each new day of writing not knowing what was going to happen. But a novel is a lot of words, and I found myself paging back through previous chapters, trying to remember how I described this or that, or whether it had been day or night. I had plotting problems and pacing problems. I was doing more rewriting than writing. To make matters worse, I became ill and couldn’t write for weeks. I had trouble getting back into the story after that, as if I’d lost my way.
I went back to outlining. Not a standard outline—more a stream of consciousness. I write in long paragraphs, putting down events and images as they come to me. I put in snatches of conversation as I think of them, as much description as I can imagine. I think in terms of scenes rather than chapters, and I don’t hesitate to juggle the scenes around if I think of something better later on.
The outline for the book I’m working on now is twenty-five pages, single-spaced, and growing. It’s ever changing. I’m constantly tweaking and adding details. As a result, I’m rewriting less and enjoying it more.
Fine for me, but suppose you want to try outlining yet don’t want to go into so much detail. One method is to write all your scenes on 3X5 cards. Put down the important features such as time, place, which characters are in the scene, etc. Arrange them in order on your kitchen table. It’s a good way to spot plotting problems—you can shift the scenes around or add new ones to fill in any holes.
Does that still seem too much of a chore? Then make outlining a game—and what is more fun than a computer game? Storybook has a terrific program to help novelists organize their story. It’s fun, easy, and they never use the word outline. Best of all, it’s free. Download it here: http://storybook.intertec.ch/joomla/
A friend tells me he outlines his books in his head. While I don’t think that’s quite the same thing, I firmly believe the only right way is the way that works for you. Don’t discount anything until you’ve tried it yourself.