Skip to content

Outlining: A Personal Journey

September 17, 2010


Taken last winter with 100 other potential author photos. The beard did not last the spring.

      To outline or not to outline; that is the question. At least that is one burning question this week at Wicked Writers, where we endeavor to discuss, convince or even lecture on the necessity of plotting one’s course when beginning that next bestseller. Some might suggest that it is in fact the most important writing one will ever do.

     As I contemplated this week’s prompt, I was unsure just which side of the fence I was standing behind. I have written by simply sitting down and blazing ahead, come Hell or high water. More recently, I have written with more of a plan. It wasn’t until I had written this post’s rough draft that I came to fully realize just which side of the fence I should be standing behind. Walk with me, won’t you…

     I might be a special case and I will leave that for you to decide just how special needs that might be. What I mean by this is, I have done quite a lot of writing where I have started madly typing away, allowing the visuals in my head to play out as if they were the scenes in a motion picture that had yet to be written down. A script in reverse, if you will. Regular readers of mine will recall that I have mentioned this before. In fact, my first novel was written just this way. It did take twenty years to write, so it would be extremely difficult for me to champion this method of writing. It took much editing and many rewrites to get it where it is now, and may be one of the reasons why it took so long. Perhaps if I would have mapped it out with an outline it might not have taken so long to complete. I have also written all of my short stories in this fashion, but the size and scope was so much easier to rein in, if and when things began to go astray.

     For my second novel I did map it out. I don’t know whether it was the greatest outline in the world since I had never tried writing a novel with one before. I think it did help me to map out the action beforehand and to narrow my focus. That novel only took eight months to write from beginning to end of second draft. My third novel in the series currently only exists as an outline. Yet, even now, as I contemplate working on that project this winter, I can hear the outline speaking to me. I grow excited just thinking about it, most likely since I don’t have to do the heavy lifting now. I am confident that once I blow the dust off of that thing, the images will begin to play and the writing will be quite easy. Whether it is good or not remains to be seen!

     You will be visited by three ghosts… Okay, perhaps just one.

     Come just a little further please…

     I recall a painful writing experience that occurred in my youth. Today, not only does every home have a computer, but there is one in every other room. However, what you are about to see occurred back in the 1980’s when there were only one or two computers on every block. You know, the dark ages! Anyway, my neighbors allowed me access to their pc for my writing. I spent many an afternoon there, but one particular evening I must have been late getting home and neglected to save my work. I recall leaving their home, feeling horrible as I walked back across the street. That night I spent hours jumping out of my bed as bits of action, dialogue, etc., came flooding back as I was attempting to go to sleep. Eventually, I got enough of it back, or at least enough to save the story. If I would have had an outline, it might have saved me from a lot of stress, unless of course I had neglected to save that, too.

     As you have taken this journey with me, you must realize, as I have, just how important outlines can be.  Mine are not great sketches of character or the latitude and longitude of every single subplot. They are only a few sentences that essentially script out where I need to be with each chapter. They still allow me the freedom to create, unshackled to strict rules, while helping me to focus on what should to be happening next. Perhaps more importantly than anything for me has been how helpful they have been with my pacing. Studying my outlines I have come to realize just what was needed and exactly when it was needed, much like a film director planning his shots by storyboard.

     If one would have asked me how much stock I put into outlining prior to this week, I might have said that I was not a believer. However, as you and I have found as we walked the terrain of this subject, I believe that I can be firmly counted among the converted. How about you? Are you reluctant to sit down and outline for fear that it zaps the creative process? Is it far too mundane a task? Are some of you other Wicked Writers out there believers in simply sketching your writing, and thus leaving plenty of opportunity for creativity or spontaneity? Do some of you actually prefer the shackles? (Poor attempt to entice comments?)

     The Wicked Writers Staff thank you for all of your comments this week and every week, and hope that you will keep them coming. We are reclining about Headquarters, snacking on Maple Bars and sipping coffee, eagerly awaiting more. Or is it just me?

     Oh, and thanks for taking the walk with me…

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 3:03 am

    I’m up late tonight, trying to get through gmail Hell, and saw this pop up early. So I’m not a total panster, but I’ll admit, today I wrote down a few sketches of a scene I wanted to write, and the end result wasn’t anything like what I started out doing. Now, maybe the rough sketches helped me focus on some gold mining that came later. But I still cling to the idea that all my creative ideas come when I write, not when I sketch. But it is a form of advanced planning to have a sketch.

    I’ve learned a lot this week. It has been fun to see other’s process. I’ve even ordered a couple of new books I promise to read on the subject.

    Nice to go down the story road with you, James. Thoughtful post.

    • September 17, 2010 11:34 am

      Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate you taking the time. I try and post as early as I can. You should see me at 3:00 am when I get up for work, only one eye working, as I attempt to navigate my trusty iPhone, double-checking that the post is up! In any event, I saw your comment, but had been unable until now to respond. This post and I actually went around in circles for a while. First, I was uncertain where I stood on the matter. Then I figured that out. I went back and forth with tone and structure. Finally, I came to decide that I would lead the reader through the text as a journey. Hopefully, it worked out. Thanks again and have a great weekend.

  2. September 17, 2010 8:09 am

    Ahhh, James, I lived those dark ages as well…

    I remember a time I was going through my “Star Trek” fan slash phase, as well as operating a underground GLBTQA newsletter, catering to the soliders of Fort Bragg/Pope AFB and Cherry Hill (Marines). I would stay after or even volunteer for extra duty at command quarters where I was stationed and work diligently on them when no one was around.

    One day, the first Sergeant gathered us grunts for a little ‘chat’ — seems that the platoon leader went through the ‘dictionary’ and a whole lot of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘homo’ words had been added to the standard dictionary along with the military slang.

    Of course, all eyes went toward me (I was out of the writers closet on being a Star Trek fan) – but thank god at that time, nobody suspected my nefarious connection to the only military GLBTQA newsletter being published in NC before the ‘don’t ask/don’t tell years…’

    After that, I was real careful not to add anything to the company’s computer dictionary.

    Anyway — in regards to outlining, I find I straddle the fence (like I do so many things in life.) I outline on the ‘really important, big time projects’ – and tend to pants at smaller potatoes (blog posts, shorts, novellas, etc.)

    It also seems to depend on the temperature, the season, my recent weight gain, medication snagfus, and the current condition of my imaginary sex life.

    But then again, that’s the beauty of being a writer – we are all so different, yet so the same as each other…

    Keep up the great work on your upcoming novel! We are rooting for you!

    • September 19, 2010 10:25 am

      Thanks, George. Star Trek, huh? My dad watched the original television show, so I ended up watching as well. I never did get into the Next Generation or the others. However, I am a huge fan of the films with the original cast. Wrath of Khan, baby!
      Anyway, thanks so much for the coment, my friend.

      • September 20, 2010 8:01 am

        Ricardo Montalban has got to be on of the sexiest men to ever grace the screen. Loved that guy. Great job as a villain!

  3. September 17, 2010 9:41 am

    I am SUCH a plotter. I tried writing my last book pantser-style during NANOWRIMO last November. It ended up at 59,000 words and took me six months to backtrack and revise and turn into something I think is publishable. Never again! I use a sentence outline (and, okay, it might be color-coded by plot thread and character) that keeps me on track with the plot but still leaves me wiggle room to have fun in a scene. After every chapter, I go back and revise the outline to reflect any unanticipated twists I’ve taken. I can do two books a year while holding down a full-time job using this method. I’ll be doing NANOWRIMO again, but with an outline this time!

  4. September 17, 2010 11:38 am

    Hello, Suzanne. Since I was talking about movies… It seems to me that if a director is going to have a script supervisor, then we should have outline assistants or something! Right? With regards to outlining, it might be a question that I should revisit in a year ot two. Who knows how drastically my oulines might get by then? Whatever works, right? Congrats to you on figuring out what works for you. I think I’m still learning…
    Great talking to you. Take care and thanks for commenting.

  5. September 17, 2010 12:48 pm

    Great post, James. I agree, no matter how good your first book is you don’t want the others to take 20 years to produce! 😉

    We were always one of those lucky families to have a computer – basically b/c of my Dad’s field in engineering. Too bad we never had any writers in the family back then!

    • September 18, 2010 3:04 pm

      Thanks, C.J. Sorry I took so long to reply. Things have been a blur lately. Look who I’m talking to, right? Anyway, I didn’t even have time to turn on the pc yesterday. Thank the Good Lord for Trusty iPhone, otherwise I would have been invisible.
      That article was very interesting to write. Just as it sounded, I changed my mind several times during the writing. Ultimately, I hope proved to be thought-provoking. It sure changed my thinking.

  6. Robert C. Nelson permalink
    September 17, 2010 6:13 pm

    I’ve been reading everyone’s responses all this week, waiting for someone to agree with me. Guess what? That didn’t happen. I am a pure pantser. So pure that I never know in advance how my novels will end. Basically, my first draft becomes my outline after the fact. That makes the second draft pretty simple: I know what I have to add, delete, or whatever. It doesn’t take me long to write, so there’s no time wasted. My people talk to me, dictate the action, and I write it down.

    All this being said, I’m not saying my approach would work for anyone other than me. I enjoy my method. It makes writing pure joy.

    • September 18, 2010 3:08 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. I’m glad to hear that writing is a joy for you. Sometimes it ends up being work, and what fun is that? I’m also glad that you shared your process with us. This blog wouldn’t be any fun if everyone agreed completely. I think the whole point is to have different tastes and views and see where that leads.
      Have a great weekend.

  7. September 22, 2010 6:34 pm

    Being an (ex)engineer, I would be lost without an outline or plan. In fact, when I set out to write a novel, my first question was what does a novel look like? I have now refined outlining to my own artform. I am still writing the outline for the sequel to River of Judgement and I have over 20000 words – it just keeps growing before my eyes! Like a flower bursting into bloom. I even outline a short story! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: