Jun 18, 2009

To Outline or Not to Outline . . .

That is the question. I’ve been seeing a lot of action on AW and a lot of blog posts about whether ‘tis nobler to take one path or the other. Time for me to chime in with my two cents worth. :-)

This is one of those endless debates that no one ever really wins. On the one hand we have the outliners: these people have their charts and their character sheets and their index cards. They sacrifice many trees in the name of creating the perfect outline before they start to write.

On the other hand, we have the pantsters: these people prepare by filling up their coffee mug (or wine glass) sit down at the computer, and away they go.

I never used to outline, especially when it came to short stories. I’d get an idea and start writing. Sometimes it would work and I’d actually get the story finished. Other times I'd get about halfway through and then forget where I was going with it.

Then I started to do a brief outline, more just to make sure the idea would really work before I went to all the trouble of developing it. In most cases it worked out better, although I still have a few of these stories that never got finished.

My first novel, I did not outline, but I had character sheets and maps of the world and tons of information about the way magic worked there and the various races my character would encounter, and then I started writing. I made it about halfway through before I ground to a halt. I had two possible endings in mind and I couldn’t continue until I knew which ending I was going to use. Each ending would take the story in an entirely different direction.

The next novel I wrote down the whole idea from start to finish. I wouldn’t really call it an outline, it’s only a couple of paragraphs long, I’d call it more of a guideline. I’m still plugging away on it.

Next one was my very first Nano experience. I made a list of characters (whose names were subject to change on a whim) and in point form listed everything I wanted to have happen in the story. Unfortunately, when it came to the actual writing, I picked scenes to work on at random. I did finish the first draft but the editing is a slow and excruciating process.

This past Nano almost didn’t happen for me. My writing had ground to a halt and I hadn’t written anything in two weeks. But there was a story that kept replaying itself in my head and just wouldn’t go away. So on November 1, I grit my teeth and signed up. Not only did I finish Nano, I finished early and had 7,000 words over the goal.

Could I do it again? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it. The next story I work on I’m going to do at least a sketchy outline to keep me on track, and then I’m going to work on it in a linear fashion. When it comes to my other creative outlets I like to be organized, so why not with my writing?

But that’s just me. What about other people?

I have one writing friend who gets herself an idea, sets herself a page limit and then proceeds to start typing. She will type the story from start to finish, go over it once to make sure she’s said everything she wanted to say, and then send it to a proof reader to check for typos, nothing else, just typos. That’s all there is to it.

I have another friend who writes such a detailed outline I’d almost call it a first draft. She’ll write her first draft, tweak it, let it sit for a week or so, tweak it again and send it out to her beta readers. She’ll take any suggestions they have under consideration and then do the final polishing.

So which method is better?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The best way is . . . . whichever way works for you and your story.


Jamie D. said...

I can never decide which I like better. Sometimes an outline kills all the mystery of a story for me, so I lose interest. Other times, an outline really helps me stay on track with notes I can refer to if I get "brain freeze" at a certain point.

I've been doing kind of a "middle" approach. I start writing with just a plot summary, then I outline just one or two chapters ahead of where I'm at for the day. That way I know where I'm going the next day, but not far enough ahead to "spoil" the story for me.

Someday I'd really like to be able to work from a full outline though. It seems like editing would be so much easier...

C R Ward said...

LOL Good to know someone else is a fence sitter over this issue. Sometimes when I'm writing by the seat of my pants and I get stuck I'll outline the next couple of chapters to make things easier.

Benjamin Solah said...

Ah, the eternal question!

I choose my method according to the story, but at the moment am more in favour of some basic idea of what happens at the start, middle and end and then going for it. The first draft works as a kind of outline for the second draft...

But you've already read about that.