Driving A Car At Night: Do You Outline, Or Not?

When I was a nonfiction writer, I remember being a little nonplussed by the obsession emerging writers had with established writers' processes.  In interview after interview, successful writers were asked, "What time of day do you work? For how many hours?" and inevitably, "Do you work from an outline, or not?"  Writing nonfiction, for me anyway, was a relatively straightforward process that didn't beg these kinds of questions, particularly with regards to an outline.  OF COURSE I wrote an outline!  It helped that when I wrote my first (and only) book "I Do But I Don't: Why The Way We Marry Matters," the structure came fairly easily.  It went something like this.  "The Proposal."  "The Ring."  "The Dress."  And so on until, "The Wedding."  Not terribly inventive, but effective all the same.

When I began writing my first novel, however--after the initial, thrilling burst of words I rushed to the page when the concept first came to me--I started to panic.  How would I find the structure for this story?  How would I organize the jumble of thoughts, characters and scenes churning through my head?  In the outline I wrote for my nonfiction book, I was helped enormously by the fact that I was making an argument in each chapter, organizing research and interviews I'd done to support ideas being laid out, I hoped, with clearly defined logic.  But as I began to think about my novel, and even though an over-arching plot (of sorts) was in my head, its details were murky, its characters ever-changing, and its specifics as slippery as a trout in a mountain stream.  I would try to get hold of them, but then I'd start actually writing, and everything would change.

And pretty soon I wanted to ask every writer I knew: "Do you work from an outline, or not? (Tell me, dammit!  What do I do?)"

There are so many answers to this question, and, as any experienced writer will tell you, they vary as much as writers do.  But I got great advice from a friend of mine who has completed no fewer than six books, and who has an approach to writing I completely admire: practical.  "Do a paragraph per chapter," she said. "Quickies, just capturing things.  Really take your time on it though.  Make it an important part of your process.  Finish it before you start writing again.  Then, as you write, you can add to it, take things out of it, and change it around."

And that was what I did.  Sitting down to write that outline six months ago, I felt like I was taking my first real step towards writing a novel, rather than just putting a bunch of words (no matter how witty and beautiful they were) on a page.  And then, outline in hand, I started writing.  And I sort of followed it.  And then I didn't.  And I didn't.  And I didn't again.  Today, Brooke Warner, who is my editor with She Writes Press, asked me if I could send her my outline, since she could help me more if she knew where the book was going.  "I have an outline," I said, cautiously, "or I had one.  But now it's sort of...old."

I am planning to update it.  To try to envision, carefully and deliberately, what the next half of my book will bring.  But part of me wants to avoid it like the plague.  I am going, so shouldn't I just keep going?  I may not know what's going to happen in the next hundred pages, but I know what needs to happen next.  As in the oft-quoted E.L. Doctorow line about writing: "It's like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  

So today I ask you -- how do you make the trip?  Do you outline?  When?  Before you start?  In the middle?  And how?  Paragraphs?  Roman numerals?  What?  And if you have an outline, do you stick to it?  Experienced (and inexperienced) writers, please, I need to know.  I am obsessed with other writers' process, because I am still trying to figure out mine.

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Comment by Kamy Wicoff on November 13, 2012 at 8:51am

@Eliza, writers' GPS, brilliant!  You will be a millionaire if you invent that one.  And @ire'ne, I won't say here now the idea came to me, because you have given me an idea for a future post.  

Comment by Augie on November 11, 2012 at 5:14pm

Oops Kamy, I forgot to tell you that I do Stor-yboarding, this helps me to keep my characters straight, and how them flow in the story.  Augie

Comment by Augie on November 11, 2012 at 5:12pm

Kamy, sorry but I don't outline, unless the piece is non-fiction. I don't think there is a hard and fast rule to fiction, except write what you know that inspires you, and allow the words to flow. At first you may not know where you're going or you might have an idea, than all of a sudden you're blind-sighted by a character you had no idea that took on its own life (that's the fun part in fiction writing), and boom the story moves in another direction. What's most important I think is to start. Keep notes. And don't give up.  Augie

Comment by Amy Dionne on November 10, 2012 at 9:03am

Kamy, this post is so relevant to where I've been lately with my writing too. I was inspired so much that I wrote a blog post of my own in response:

Freedom and Structure

Hope it helps add to the discussion. Cheers, Amy

Comment by Joanne C. Hillhouse on November 9, 2012 at 9:57am

Thanks, Kamy...clearly I was very motivated by your post as well. Reading through the comments, I realize something else... that while I do, generally write forward, I do have scenes or character or plot points that come ahead of their time...when they do (rather than lose them) I make a note or if compelled write them out...then keep writing forward. Clearly I'm still discovering the process :-)

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on November 9, 2012 at 9:19am

Ok, where to start.  First of all Joanne, I loved your Five Questions -- thank you so much for being part of She Writes! And you inspired me -- I have been thinking of doing a post about when to get feedback, and when it's too much, and I actually had to drop out of a writers group in the early stages of writing my novel because I got overwhelmed and it was causing me to freeze up rather than barrel ahead.  RYCJ, I find that the characters drive me along too, and it's so fun when they reveal something unexpected to you.  Shannon I love the term pantser!  And Leah, I am about to sit down to write and I am definitely doing the "yep, then this should happen, ok, let's go" approach.  More soon!

Comment by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder on November 8, 2012 at 2:54pm

I love when writers confess to their struggle.  Makes me feel like my process is normal.  

In the new book I'm writing (unlike my two prior novels) I'm trying the whole outlining process, if only to eliminate writing four times more novel than I need, like I did last time...and the time before.  I tried to write it screenplay style, dialogue only, just to get the story down, and planned to fill in the descriptions and narrative after. But I found that I missed prose.  I missed description. And while I love writing dialogue, writing only dialogue for the length of a novel wasn't as fun.  

Perhaps the frame of an outline will let me build the structure of the thing, then I can play while I write.  Next stop: outline, outline, outline.  There, I said it three times, perhaps that means I'll really do it.  

Comment by Margaret Crum on November 8, 2012 at 4:13am

In order to organize all the ideas rattling around in my brain and process them into something I can use, i begin with an outline.However, it changes constantly throughout the project as more creative inspirations kick in. The outline serves as a guide to keep me on track and help me move through the various phases of the story. Even when there is a lack of creativity, the outline helps me keep writing and I can go back later to edit and tweak.

Comment by Jenni Ogden on November 7, 2012 at 2:25pm

I outline for a novel, writing a paragraph for each chapter, and if another lightbulb goes on (usually while walking on the beach or after the lights go out and everyone else is sleeping) I add that idea to the outline as soon as I can. Often as I revise, the chapters get shifted, or sometimes deleted or merged. One value for me, apart from giving my thoughts some shape, is to help me keep an eye on the length of my manuscript. My first “draft” of my first novel was 180.000 wds! The revised (x about 10) version is 94,000 wds. At the beginning I didn’t know that agents and editors rarely look at debut “bookclub” fiction that is over 100,000 wds, and prefer around 85,000 wds. Now that I know this, my 2nd novel is planned to be the right length. The other plus for me of having an outline is as a memory tool. If, for whatever reason (and there are many) I don’t work on that book for a while, being able to read my chapter by chapter outline is a major help and motivator. Also I would never remember all those lightbulb flashes of possible brilliance if I didn’t make a note of them in the appropriate place. I do re-print my outline whenever I make major changes to it such as deleting a whole subtheme or changing around the chapters, and I file the old outlines away, or I’d be constantly revisiting them. And I always have a hard copy of the outline with me when I’m writing, or reading what I’ve written (perhaps sitting on the beach minus computer) so I can jot ideas onto it if I need to. Another thing I’ve found really useful in revising is to always write in Kindle format and when I have a good hunk written I send it off to Amazon and it appears on my Kindle which I can read anywhere, just like a real book! Somehow this is a different experience than reading it on the computer or printed out, and it allows me to pick up poor sentences, over-used words, poor characterization etc more easily. Of course I have to make handwritten notes about corrections or changes, and then correct them on the computer later, but it works well. And as the novel improves, reading it on the Kindle is almost like reading someone else’s (published) book, which is very motivating.  

Comment by Christina M. Rau on November 7, 2012 at 12:15pm

I really needed to respond to this piece out of guilt.  As a teacher of writing, I tell my students that outlining is everything.  Without an outline, you have no plan, no path.  As a writer, I never outline.  I suppose I have an idea in my head of an outline, but nothing specific.  I have a knack for moving around snippets afterwards to make a solid order.  I guess I'm a hypocrite :)


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