Writing Advice #35: Outlining

I get asked a lot about outlining. Some people seem to think that it’s a mysterious, arcane art that must be mastered before one is allowed even to contemplate writing a novel. Others recoil at its mere mention, as though it contained wolvesbane. (Uh, they would be werewolves in this scenario.)

So, I’m going to take a moment to talk to y’all about outlines.

First of all, let’s acknowledge: there are outlines and then there are OUTLINES… 🙂

I mean, we all remember outlines from school, right?

I. Big Idea

A. Smaller Idea

1. Even Smaller Idea

a. Smallest idea yet

i. except for this one, which is even smaller…

You get the drift.

I have never in my LIFE used one of those. Back in high school, when my English teachers would make me use one, I would write the paper first and THEN do the outline last, based on the paper. (They always complimented me on how well I followed my initial plan. Heh.)

Of course, there are other, less strict kinds of outlines. I honestly don’t know ANY writers who use that rigid formulation shown above, but I’m sure someone out there does.

When we say “outline,” more often than not, we’re really just talking about PLANNING. And different writers plan to greater or lesser degrees.

I break writers down into two categories: mechanical and organic.

(No, this is not about to devolve into an argument about Spider-Man’s webshooters. The geeks know what I’m talking about…)

Mechanical writers plan things in advance. They have lists, flowcharts, descriptions, breakdowns, etc. all worked out in advance. They know before they write the first word of the book, for example, that Chapter 12 will contain an important plot twist. Depending on how much they plan, they may even know the specifics of that plot twist. Sometimes, though, they just know that by the time they get to Chapter 12, it’ll be time for a twist.

How do they know this? Beats the living hell outta me. I’m not a mechanical writer. I can’t plan to save my life. I’m an organic writer.

Organic writers, for the most part, go with the flow. When I write, I know the beginning and the overall theme of the book. I know the ending. And that’s usually it, except for “targets.” What are targets? That’s what I call the loose collection of mini-ideas that float between the beginning and the ending of the book in the vast, empty space I call my skull.

Basically, when I write, I sort of play “connect-the-dots” with those targets. Only the targets aren’t numbered. Rarely do I know how they connect to one another. I just sort of feel my way along and sometimes I put MORE dots on the page (and, infrequently, I take some away). And at some point, (usually about a third of the way in), everything just clicks into place and I can suddenly see how what remains connects to what I’ve written already, as well as what new scenes will be needed to make it all work.


As an example: When I was about a third of the way through Goth Girl Rising, I’d written maybe 150 pages. (Obviously, I ended up trimming a bit before the book came out.) Of those 150 pages, only 100 or so were actually from the beginning of the book, written in chronological order. The other fifty or so were scenes I dreamed up, knowing that they were part of the story. I just didn’t know where they went or how they fit in. But I wrote them anyway and just allowed them to float out there in the future. And as I wrote, I would suddenly go, “Ah! That scene I wrote last week will fit in HERE now.” Or “If I add in a new scene with THIS character, then I can tie in that stuff I wrote before that had nowhere else to go.”

Organic, see? It just grows like weeds.

Sometimes people take offense when I describe these two kinds of writers. They think that I’m saying that mechanical writers have no verve, no energy, that planning everything in advance leaves no room for spontaneity. Nothing could be further from the truth!

There’s PLENTY of room for spontaneity in mechanical writing. It’s just that the spontaneity happens during the planning stages, that’s all.

(This is like the argument some people have about whether or not they learn the sex of their baby before the baby is born. I have friends who said they didn’t want to learn the sex because “we want to be surprised.” My brother DID learn the sex of the baby before my niece was born: “It’s still a surprise,” he said. “It just comes EARLIER.”)

Now, I’ve recently found myself in a position where I have to outline. The editors on a new series I’m working on have insisted that I outline each book. Originally there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at Stately Lyga Manor when this edict came down, but I managed to stop throwing a hissy fit long enough to comply. My outline for the first book in the series had ten chapters, each one planned out meticulously.

The final book had twice as many chapters and involved characters never described in the outline. Oops.

Like I said before, I’m not a very good planner. But it was all cool. See, my editors weren’t looking at the outline to grade my final performance or anything like that. They just wanted an idea of how the book was going to develop. They wanted some sort of a plan. Within that plan, though, I discovered plenty of flexibility.

Why do I need flexibility? Because amazing things can happen when you just wing it! Sometimes a character will come on stage earlier than you anticipated and that will be great. Other times, you’ll get surprised by your own plot twist. In any event, no matter what you do, I encourage you to allow yourself to be surprised by your own work. If something surprises you, then there’s a really good chance it will surprise the reader, too!

I can’t tell you which of these methods is better. Because neither one is inherently superior. One works for me. It works well. That doesn’t mean it works for everyone. And to my surprise, I’ve found that outlining isn’t as bad as I’d always feared, and I can see myself using it in the future in instances where it’s helpful.

Play around and see what works for you. Combine the two, if you want — start off organic, then, just when you’re about to tear your hair out because you don’t know what to do next, sit down and plot out the rest of the story meticulously.

And above all, don’t worry too much. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re planning too much or too little. Do what works for you. Writing is like the Outback commercials: No rules, just right. (Hmm. I could really go for a Bloomin’ Onion right about now…)

As always: Ask questions below if you’ve got ’em. Next week, I think we’ll talk about overcomplicating your story.