• gayle brandeis
  • Road Maps (On Writing with an Outline for the First Time)
Road Maps (On Writing with an Outline for the First Time)
Written by
gayle brandeis
November 2011
Written by
gayle brandeis
November 2011

I have always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer. I usually love not knowing where I’m going when I write--I love the process of discovery, of surprise, of letting the characters tell me where they want to go. My favorite quote about novel writing has always been EL Doctorow’s (which I may be paraphrasing a bit): “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far ahead as your own headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That dark road is so full of mystery and possibility--it’s been my favorite place to travel.

This NaNo, however, I am doing things a bit differently. I am using an outline.

Now, I have nothing against outlines, per se. I know and admire many writers who swear by them. I just never imagined I might be one of them some day.

Here is where I admit that I am not a NaNo purist this time around. I am actually using this month to flesh out a project I started a while back, a YA novel titled Seed Bombs that is making the rounds of publishers, in proposal form, as we speak. I have been carrying the idea for this book--a dystopian tale about kids who become guerrilla gardeners--inside of me for a few years, but had only gotten around to writing a couple of sample chapters (which I’m not including in my NaNo word count--I started at zero on November 1.) My agent suggested that if I pulled together a synopsis and an outline, we could try to sell the book before I actually wrote it. It was scary for me to commit to an outline--I worried that if I knew where the story was going, I wouldn’t want to actually write it, or the writing would be devoid of any real creative juice. But I liked the idea of getting a contract, getting a deadline, something that would force me to write (because, as I mentioned in my last blog, the chaos of the last couple of years had really impacted my ability to focus on long form projects). The process of writing the outline fortunately turned out to be a lot of fun, filled with its own sort of discovery and surprise--still, I didn’t jump head first the novel after I wrote the outline; I put myself into waiting mode.

The proposal has been out for a couple of months now--we haven't heard back from any editors yet. In the meanwhile, a super cool ghostwriting gig that I had been up for didn’t come through, and I realized that between that potential job and the proposal, I had essentially been waiting around for someone to tell me what to write. I think it was the main reason I had been excited about the ghost writing job--I was hoping that writing someone else’s story would jump start my own writing, help ease me back into my own work. It became clear, though, that no one was going to do that for me--I was going to have to do it, myself. And I realized that I had given myself my own jump start by writing an outline.

Less than two weeks into NaNoWriMo, I am not surprised that I have already veered from this outline--a brand new character showed up on the page demanding attention, and I have written scenes that I couldn’t have anticipated until they flew out of my fingers--but having the outline has proven to be a source of comfort. If I am not sure what to write, I can look at my list of scenes and see which one sparks something in me. For all my love of driving blindly into the night, I am realizing how helpful it can be to have a road map, a sense of the bigger picture. Life itself has been so full of uncertainty, lately--bringing a bit of structure to the writing process has offered a welcome counterpoint to that. There is still lots of space to lose control, to surrender to the wild river of words, within that structure, but it gives me something to hold onto, something to keep me from drowning.

We are our own dark roads--we never truly know what lies in store in our lives, or even what is most deeply within us. If we get too precious about our process, if we cling too tightly to our idea of who we are as writers--saying we’d never use an outline, only use an outline, etc.--we miss out on the growth that comes through change. So I highly encourage you this November (and beyond) to shake yourself up, try something new--write at a different time of day, write something you never imagined you were capable of attempting. Take yourself to places inside yourself that you had resisted as a writer. I’d love to hear about your own adventures into uncharted (or freshly charted!) territory.

Let's be friends

The Women Behind She Writes

519 articles
12 articles

Featured Members (7)

123 articles
392 articles
54 articles
60 articles

Featured Groups (7)

Trending Articles

  • gayle brandeis

    Thanks so much, Cathy! I'm glad that writing an outline helped clarify your story for you! :) While I hadn't written a novel with an outline before, I have actually revised with an outline--breaking my completed first draft down into a list of scenes so I could see what I had written, where I had left holes, where I had gone off on a tangent, etc. Very useful, indeed.

    Thanks so much for sharing your own outline tips, Sabine--so helpful! 


  • Sabine A.Reed

    Here is a post I did about novel outline a long time ago. Hope it helps someone outline their project: http://sabineareed.com/how-to-write-novel-outline-in-one-page/

  • gayle brandeis

    Thanks so much, Yejide! I loved hearing about your own outline process! xoxo


  • Yejide Kilanko

    Thanks for the post Gayle. All the best :)

  • Yejide Kilanko

    Lauren Michelle, in response to your dilemma about how to outline. What worked for me was breaking down all my chapters into scenes. At the beginning of each scene, i wrote down the location and the main character responsible for setting things into motion. I did end up with a 48 page outline but it has been a blessing for me and I still tweak the document as I write and those pesky characters make demands they are not in the outline :) I wrote my first novel without an outline and I found myself stuck several times. I hope this helps in some way. Good Luck! 

  • gayle brandeis

    Thank you so much, everyone! Diane, I love thinking of you scuba diving (and love that it inspired your first novel.) Catherine, yes, I think it's a great exercise to try, just to give yourself the experience of approaching your writing from a different angle. :) Chloe, I love what you wrote--"each story will have a life of its own, may we meet it there on the page with grace and an open heart"--so beautiful, and so true. Lauren, I don't think there is any one right way to do an outline--I just wrote a list of scenes in the order that I thought they would appear. I know some people get much more complicated with outlines, and I imagine that if you do some searching, you can find some models, but mine is very simple and straightforward (although it is definitely morphing as I write.) I wish you all the best with your writing! xoxo

  • Chloe Diaz de Bedoya

    Great article, I also love El Doctorow's quote. And the idea of being flexible and lead by the process, each story will have a life of it's own, may we meet it there on the page with grace and an open heart. Thanks for sharing. Todo suerte on your project.


  • Catherine McNamara

    I love the EL Doctorow comment, that's exactly how it feels. I try to avoid foggy white-outs though! I never work with an outline. Maybe some comments further ahead, something to aim for, but often I find this becomes constricting as the story shapes its own path. Might be an exercise to try ?

  • Diane Sherlock

    Inspiring as always, Gayle. I might try an outline with my next novel. Had that same feeling when I took a scuba class of realizing no one was going to do it for me, but not only did I love it, gave me my first novel, Dead Weight. This was a good reminder- time to change things up again. 

  • gayle brandeis

    A special offer for She Writers...If you'd like to read my first NaNoWriMo novel, The Book of Live Wires (which is definitely one of my non-outline, seat-of-my-pants novels!), use the coupon code DP32X when you order the book at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/99856 and you can get it for $1 instead of $2.99. xoxo