In which the author fails to outline

So, last night, after work, I broke out a new! yellow pad, drew a black pen and a red pen from stores and retired to the sofa to consider Carousel Seas, Socks sitting as consultant.  Since I’ve now heard from two beta readers to the effect that Carousel Sun makes sense, I feel reasonably confident in moving on with the story.

Now, usually, I work outline-free.  Which is to say, I’ll sketch in some notes, some bits of dialog, some questions that the narrative ought to address,  but that’s pretty much it.  At some point, I’ll feel like I have Enough Stuff to start typing. I type for the first, oh, third of the book, then I read what I have and see what the threads are, and consider where they’re going.  From that point on, I’ll make chapter-going-forward (or scene-going-forward) notes and so on until the thrilling conclusion.  This method is somewhat uncertain, and can become a little hair-raising in the face of serious auctorial illness or a severe bout of depression, but in general it Works for Me.  And, no, it’s probably not how grown-up writers do it.

Having said all that, I will confess that I have worked from an outline once or twice — for values of having produced an outline, which I then threw away when the story took a left turn.  After all, I’m usually under contract for a novel, not an outline, so the outline is, IMNSHO, disposable*.  From these early experiences, I learned that outlines (for me) are pretty much useless.  That scene-sketching, writing bits of dialogue, and being open to SFoG (Sudden Flashes of Genius) is much more useful to what we’ll dignify as My Process.

The trouble with all of this being that, due to mostly having day-jobs during my formative years as a writer, I’ve been pretty much a Night Writer.  Brain turns on at 5:00 p.m. and we’re off to the races.  Early in the day, I’ll edit what I wrote yesterday, and maybe noodle out some notes, but the actual work happens late in the day.  This needs to change, at least somewhat, due to Reasons, and it occurred to me that it might make the transition to Day Writer easier if I had a road map to assist my daylight-shocked brain.

And I sat there on the couch, with my pen poised over the nice, new yellow pad, with Socks, remember, consulting. . .and wrote down the questions left over from the previous book; other things I think need to be addressed, going forward…and flipped the page, thinking, “Outline.  It’s not hard.” . . .and got nowhere and, finally, gave up, because, yanno, how can I outline something that hasn’t happened yet?


This would seem to be a bigger conceptual change than I had thought.

So, writers who read here — outline or no outline?  And!  If outline, how do you outline something that hasn’t happened yet?


*I was at Boskone on a panel with a writer who swore that he produced 130-page outlines.  Which, full disclosure, seems nuts to me.  He then went on to explain that he’d gotten to the point in the current project where he realized that the outline had misled him, and was in the position of having to tear out 9,000 words — or possibly start the book over; it was Sunday afternoon, I was tired, and he was heated — and the deadline was looming.  Which only serves to reinforce my own feelings regarding outlines:  They’re only going to betray you in the end…

5 thoughts on “In which the author fails to outline”

  1. I generally recommend outlining because it reduces dithering. I hope you understand what I mean by dithering.
    In your situation, I suggest a hybrid outline.
    Your effective style is global editing mode during daylight and elaboration/continuation at night. Thus, for daywork, I would set up my paper in a modified Cornell note-taking style to allow for notations of questions, notes-to-self, SFoGs, etc. along side the more structured outline area. If you choose to separate off the bottom of the page as is done for the summary section of traditional Cornell notes, it could be used as a review/wrap-up/next steps section.
    Insofar as outlining, it sounds to me that paragraph outlining is more your style than formal outlining. The side note section would more than adequately serve the same functions as those elaborating subordinations of formal outlining.
    This way, the work you do during the day actually informs and supports the “real” work you do at night *without* creating at the worst distracting and at the least useless straight-jacket of inappropriate ideas.

  2. I totally understand what you mean by “dithering;” too much time to second-guess. It’s why the question, “What happens next?” applied often, is a novelist’s best friend. Almost always, the snap decisions made in the flow of the story are the truest (IMHO — been saying that a lot lately.).

    I had to look up Cornell Note Taking Style. It looks like a formalized version of what I do with the yellow pad. The notes-going-forward for _Carousel Sun_ have all kinds of notes on the notes along the margins, and lines of what this particular action reveals about a character.

  3. Thank goodness.
    I have been feeling so guilty about presuming to . . .
    Let’s just say the instincts of an English teacher die very very slowly.
    Thank you for taking my knee-jerk response with such equanimity.

  4. I’m an outliner. I’ll say that up front because I kick myself when I don’t outline. However, I’m an organic outliner in that my outlines are more very rough draft and sound much like your notes. Even more than that, I have no issue at all with deviations from my outline as I get to know my story and characters better, though I’ve found over the years that my outlines tend to be closer to the reality now.

    Basically what I do is a little (or sometimes not so little) present tense description (including dialogue when it comes to me) of what needs to happen through the story. I try and focus on plot in my outline because I don’t know the characters as deeply yet so how they will react to what events occur may be unknown. Sometimes I can lift sections directly from my outline into the first draft, and sometimes I go off on a sideline only to be surprised when it returns to what I predicted in the beginning.

    Personally, I think people have issues not with outlining a book but because they start out with the belief that an academic outline is the only possible format and let it intimidate them. And so this sounds less “high horse” let me reveal that my first three (failed) outlines where full on A..1…a format and tried to capture things like turning points, mood, conflict, etc. The point of an outline is to keep you going when you start to feel lost. Whatever structure the outline takes to serve that purpose is the one you need to find.

  5. I am a software developer and wannabe novelist. My software development includes developing original apps.

    Rather than an outline, I use an “issue tracker” or “bug report” approach – record all the unanswered questions and problems. This can be in a structured database or a less-structured service like Evernote, which is available on any of my portable devices. Anything works provided it makes it easy for you to search for unanswered issues as well as general searching.

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