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  • Driving A Car At Night: Do You Outline, Or Not?
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Driving A Car At Night: Do You Outline, Or Not?
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2012
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2012

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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  • Jeanne Raia

    I can't write with an outline. I think a lot of it depends upon how each individual brain works. Mine just barrels forward. I sit down; I write. The hardest thing for me in college was writing outlines. I'd have to write the paper first and then sit down and try to put together an outline. Always difficult when the outline was due first. I've written a memoir of sorts just because I needed to tell some stories and didn't have a live audience. Now I find I need a synopsis, a proposal and, in some cases, an outline. It took three months to write the book; it'll probably take another six to write the other stuff. Everyone writes in their own way so I'm not so sure there is a right way or a wrong way.

  • Karoline Barrett

    I outlined my first novel (which my agent is now trying to sell) before starting it, and though it changed, I did stick to it. I have to know where I'm going, especially the end! I use software called Sno Flake Pro and love it. You start with a single sentence as expand until you have a whole synopsis, and the paragraphs of my synopsis become my outline! I am now at work on my second novel and am using the same approach. As I said, of course the plot or direction may change, but if it does I make notes on my outline. It's so much easier to follow an outline than just write aimlessly! Hope that helps!
    @Karoline Barrett

  • Edith O Nuallain

    Oh thank you for making me feel so less odd for my constant obsession with finding out about the writing process of other authors! So far I don't have a Process as such; instead I am feeling my way in the dark towards discovering one.

  • Kayann Short, Ph.D.

    I've never attempted a novel but for the few short stories I've written, I make an outline of scenes that I'm imagining will be included. Then, as I write, I change the outline to match the story and use that to view a snapshot of the whole, rearranging as I go. It's a dialectical process--one informs the other and it helps me think about scenes more concretely. Memoir is much the same--what are the components for each chapter and how do they fit together and follow one from the other? An outline helps me see that at a glance but it's never static until I'm finished.

  • Joan Z. Rough

    I'm working on a memoir and every time I thought of putting together an outline, I wanted to vomit.  I'd stop writing.

    So,to keep my peace, I just write, keeping a working table of contents (Thanks to Debra Marrs!) of my stories. Low and behold, right before my eyes I've found my focus.  There was way too much information I was confused by. Just letting the story unfold as it wants to has saved me a lot of grief. Allowing myself be free, without constraints, is the only way for me to relax and allow what I need to say, unfold.  It takes time, sure, but I savor every minute of it. But I'm all about trying to break our cultural mode of "gotta hurry up." I haven't written fiction as yet.  I think I'd handle it the same way.  Some can outline and use it well, others can't.  Do what works best for you.

  • ire\'ne lara silva

    Thanks for this, Kamy...I can completely relate...I'm about 1/3 of the way through my first novel (as far as I can tell)...it may help that I know up-front that it's a non-linear and experimental sort of thing (at least this is what i'm told...i seriously don't think i know any other way of telling a story)...but every attempt at outlines has been a dismal fail...either i end up with whole chapters that i realize are unnecessary or i find myself paralyzed by the 'big picture' approach of my outline...even the loose outline i wrote for a fellowship application froze me in my tracks for the summer...what i've come to realize is that the only way for me to write this novel is for me to follow the 'voice' that first spoke to me and started this whole thing...it was compelling enough to make me listen...and it's been compelling enough to keep me returning to this novel for several years....i just have to trust it enough to follow where it's going to take it...

    i'm curious...how did your novel start? was it a story that captured your imagination? a character? a place? perhaps the best idea is our first idea...and learning to honor what brought us the beginning/core/heart of our novels... 

  • Eliza Battin

    I love your post! If only there was a writer's GPS - we could enter in the ending of our novel and get directions.  How long the process takes would depend on whether you're walking (writing long hand?)  using public transportation (the computer at the public library) or driving, but avoiding toll roads (it just takes longer) If we take an unexpected turn we would be reminded to make a u turn; or we can choose to ignore that command and re-route to the finish.  If only.

  • Lianne Simon

    My first novel went through five drafts. During each iteration the characters grew in complexity and depth. An outline based on plot would not have survived that process. A timeline, however, proved useful in keeping track of character locations. That is where I've started for my second novel.

  • Leah Kaminsky

    Whoops, I meant to add: I believe the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing is that with fiction, you have to discover the story, the character, the ideas as you go, no matter how well you think you know them or what they're trying to say in the beginning. While there is some discovery in non-fiction, there are a lot more knowns than unknowns. That's why I think it's easier to write a more accurate outline when completing the second draft of a novel than when you're struggling with the first. Any outlining technique you pick should *fuel* that process of discovery, not hamper it.

  • Leah Kaminsky

    It's a great question, and one I've struggled with myself (as I'm sure most fiction writers have). I've always had a visceral hatred for outlines when doing creative writing, because the characters, the ideas, well, they just want to be FREE. Too often, an outline makes me feel like I'm writing with a yoke on. The story, as I discover it, moves in another direction, and the old outline enslaves the new story -- holds it back from being what it really needs to be. At this point, if I don't give the outline up, I lose all passion for the story and can't complete it. How can I, when what my characters have become are telling a story that's no longer them?

    However, I become paralyzed if I don't have *some* kind of plan. A world of possibilities is far too much to handle. What I do now is a hybrid process. I write my first inspiring pages, then go back and construct an outline, write as much as I can, change the outline, write more, change the outline, and so forth as I go. I view the outline as scaffolding that gets me from one level to the next before I kick it away. The further along I get, the more informal my outline becomes, more of a, "Yep, and then this should happen, and don't forget that detail from chapter 3, and okay, let's go."

    Thanks for sharing, Kamy, and glad to know I'm (we're) not alone.

  • My writing group friends call me a pantser. I fly by the seat of my pants when writing. Which is funny, because I'll go toe to toe with Martha Stewart when it comes to organizing everything else in my life. I felt bad about being a pantser, so I tried to be a planner. Epic fail. I became so completely blocked I gave up for a while.

    While not having a plan means I spend a lot of time on revision (and I mean A. Lot. Of. Time.), it seems to be the only way I can work. I usually make my outline as I go, a running list of what is happening in each chapter. I don't know why I do this though, because even having that outline doesn't make my revisions any easier.

    So, here's to hoping you find a process that works for you from a pantser who dreams of becoming a planner.

  • RYCJ Revising

    Totally relate here, Kamy. Out-lining nonfiction I would see as a must, and I have heard a few notable seasoned fiction writers say they do not outline-fiction, but handle writing novels the way your mentor suggested.

    My first novel I outlined...(smile) working from practicality of what I knew. I no longer outline, but will admit that it is very daunting going in, fearing things might get so hay-wire that I give up on the story.

    For anyone asking, if I really like my characters, I (so far) always find it (almost) easy to stick with my premise in telling their story. I say almost because this still doesn't preclude the possibility of doing major rewrites on some.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    It's one reason why, though I've gotten positive reviews for my coaching, I think I feel like such a fraud sometimes when I facilitate workshops or teach...because it is so different for everyone ...plus I'm still trying to figure myself out...still a writer journeying.

  • Joanne C. Hillhouse

    I’m actually struggling with this at the moment. I recently started work on what I believe will be my next book. Over the summer, I workshopped the scraps I have (way earlier than I normally would since I don't like the pull and influence of outside voices when I'm trying to be true to my characters without censorship, self or otherwise). But I was anxious to see if I actually had anything. It was a good and stimulating workshop. I got very encouraging and helpful feedback, but it was also very detailed (which I think in retrospect is more helpful if you have a finished draft). So, for the next several weeks I expended the enthusiasm and energy I returned home with organizing the feedback, ordering the work, plotting, planning (instead of just spending time with the characters, as I would normally do)…since then I’ve been kind of stuck. Part of it is time. But it’s not just that. And I couldn’t figure out what it was. But then while answering my 5 Questions here on Shewrites, answering the question about why I write fiction, I was reminded that falling into the flow (pen on page, characters dogging me like ghosts) is a big part of the process for me and that while I normally have a sense of direction (with my last book Oh Gad! I knew the general arc and the end but I still had to find my way there), the discovery is what keeps me going…too many signposts and I was just sitting there. And I couldn't really feel the characters any more. I realize that even with my non fiction and reporting, after taking copious notes, I don’t sit to outline, I let it ruminate while doing dishes or whatever until the key turns in the lock and I figure out what the story is about(of course with journalistic deadlines that's not always possible but that's when it works best and doesn't feel like assembly line, insert widget into slot a type of writing).  I remember as I’m writing this that I workshopped my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, as well and the feedback was a lot less detailed and in my head amounted to get to know your characters better (why should I care about them, that’s what one workshop participant asked and it broke me for a minute but it also motivated me to just spend time with my characters and figuring out not just who they were but why they mattered).I didn't share the second book (which had a direction but no outline) at all until I had a completed draft, as I remember it. And so I realize that my process (and I really believe each writer has to find his/her own process) works better with minimal, very minimal, plotting (though I do realize the value of it and encourage it as a device to order one’s thoughts if you need it, when I do teach). For me though, it’s about enough mental space to walk around with the characters in my  head long enough until I find the key and can turn the car in the right direction – what is this story about? What do they want? So that’s what I have to try to get back to with this new manuscript and leave the very detailed and very helpful notes for the review process…for me, the first draft is all about the flow.