Outline – shoot me now

Here’s an age-old question: “Do you outline before you begin writing your book?”Many do, many don’t. My feeling is, whatever works for you is great.

Except when it isn’t.

Many years ago, one of my authors turned in his final to me, and I was aghast. It was swimming in a sea of backstory and fluff. Each chapter revealed very little pertinent information, and it was impossible to tell what was vital to the story and what was idle chit chat. His only saving grace is that he’s an amazing writer with one of the most unique voices I’ve ever read. That said, I was ready to kill him.

I got as far as chapter 4 and tossed the whole thing back at him with several pages of crits. He called me immediately, as I knew he would. “Whazzamatter?” he cried.

My main complaint was that he was all over the map without a discernible direction. “Did you do an outline?”

“Um. No.”

And this is when I think outlines are a very handy thing. They keep authors from derailing off the railroad tracks. And we all know how easy it is to do.

I think a lot of writers avoid doing outlines because they think it will hinder the creative process – since many of us love to just barf it out there. But I’m not talking about huge detailed outlines, unless that floats your boat. It could be one sentence you can refer to.

Chapter 1: I inform the beagle that her new cover art purse company will cut into her secretarial duties.

Chapter 2: Beagle tells me to suck it, she’s tired of working for me and wants to break out on her own.

Chapter 3: I realize that while she’s surly and rude, she does a good job of filing and covering the phones. I vacillate between firing her and finding a way to let her work part time.

This insures that I convey the important info that keeps the plot moving along and not let the fluff take over. Fluff and backstory are great in the hands of a professional…and deadly in the hands of a newer writer, where they can grow like weeds and choke out the point of the story.

And, yet, as experienced as my author was, he was too close to this story and couldn’t see that he was committing literary suicide. And my thinking is, if he – a vastly experienced writer of more than 25 years can do this, what about newer writers?

Maybe you’ll find these questions helpful when writing:

What is the intent of this chapter?

What does it need to say – to convey?

Does it further the plot, or have I veered off the railroad tracks?

So give that darling little friend, the outline, some thought. If you hit a big snag in your WIP, then an outline may help you get unstuck and keep the railroad tracks.

2 Responses to Outline – shoot me now

  1. I do think you need to have some sense of where the thing is going, AND you need to be happy with the plan. I outlined my first book and the writing went fairly quickly, so I thought the second book would go just like that. Except it didn’t, because I wasn’t as sold on the outline as I should have been. I got to a scene that was next on the list, found it incredibly boring to write, and hit my protag in the head with a golf club instead. At that point, I went rogue and made everything a matter of “what can I throw at her next?” It was fun but scary. I’m now on the third book, working to an outline I like, but I’m at a point in the story where I recognize I could go down several paths – is the one I’ve planned the best one?

    I guess the good thing is, I have a creative mind. The bad thing is, I have a creative mind.

  2. Gayle, you crack me as always.

    The lovely thing about outlining is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the first thing a writer does. Maybe the outline will help refine the work after the first draft is written.

    I know that the novels I’ve written have started with just barfing it out there. Once I’ve told myself the story (first draft), then I write the outline to help solidify and tighten the story. The biggest help to my writing is to constantly ask myself, “What is the point of this chapter, and what info do I need to impart?”

    If authors asked themselves that question more often, their stories would be a lot tighter.

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