To Outline or Not Outline

Dellani Oakes, today’s guest blogger, is the recently published author of Indian Summer, a unique regency novel of a young girl’s coming of age. Dellani says:

I continue to be amazed by people who make outlines of their stories, know where the story line is going and most of all know the ending before even writing the book. Who are these godlike folk and why am I not like them? I am a very off the cuff writer, I don’t know where the story is going to go, although I like to have a general idea before I begin. I usually start with an idea or, more often than not, a sentence that seems to resonate in my mind until I get it down on paper. Novels and short stories start the same way, a compelling first sentence.

When I was a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, I read an article in the newsletter that caught my interest. It was an interview with Tim Powers. I read snippets to my husband asking him (like he knows), “How can he do that? How can anyone do that?” Outlines? Those are things you write after a term paper is written and only because the teacher requires it. If they had a crown for that, I’d be Queen.

I rarely know where my stories are going. I don’t always know what I’m going to do with a character after I’ve introduced him, but I know he’d not be there if he weren’t important in some way. For me, writing is an exploratory process. I can’t sit down knowing what will be, I have to let it unfold. I think the idea of outlines is very intimidating for some writers, especially new ones. To know everything in advance takes some of the fun out of my process. Don’t misunderstand, I think it’s marvelous that some people can do that. I find it incredible that they are organized enough to work their way through the entire book before actually writing it. It is a matter of preference and personality.

Having tried the outline, I can honestly say it doesn’t work for me. I can’t even write a short synopsis of a book because I put in too much detail. I got half way through my first outline and thought, “If I am going to spend this much time on it, I might as well just write the book.” The outline hit the trash and I put all that creative energy into the novel instead.

What I think I was trying to say when I started is this: Don’t be intimidated by the idea that you must outline. Don’t think you can’t start the novel you’ve been dreaming about because you have no clue how it’s going to end. Go with what is comfortable for you and find your way. By all means, try outlining because it is a wonderful tool, but don’t lock yourself into the thinking that you have to follow it once it’s there. Nothing is cast in stone, everything is malleable Thenwhen the creative juices flow and the words pound at the inside of your skull demanding to be set free, you can give them the outlet they need, hammering away at your keyboard or pouring from your pen. Whatever you do, just keep writing and let the outlines take care of themselves.

Indian Summer is available from Second Wind Publishing.

9 Responses to “To Outline or Not Outline”

  1. Suzette Vaughn Says:

    An outline! Oh my I’d go nuts if I even tried to do one. Though I’m sure I do so mentally.

  2. Claire Collins Says:

    Very well said. I am in the group that doesn’t outline. I just write what comes out and then edit when it’s all done.

  3. globalwrite Says:

    I don’t (can’t) outline. I’ve tried and failed. But I recently read Robert Olen Butler’s book, “From Where You Dream, The Process of Writing Fiction.” And in that, he talks about taking about 8 weeks and dreaming up the book scene by scene while just writing 6-8 words to remind you about what you thought about! EEK! I think by the time I took that long to dream about it, it would take a heck of a lot more than a few words for me to remember what I dreamed about on day 1 of week 1. Not to mention that I think my husband might just put me in the funny farm for being in LaLa land so long.

    I want to be more organized about this. But it is apparently not me.

  4. Bertram Says:

    Thank you for hosting my blog today, Dellani. Good topic. I don’t write a formal outline, but I do know ahead of time where I am going. And I generally outline as I go along, mostly so I can keep the timeline straight.

    I have read that if you wish to write quickly, you need to outline the whole book. The two months or so it takes will save several months later. But I can’t do it. Once I have the entire story mapped out, there doesn’t seem to be any point in writing it.

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I guess I do outline. (I just did a post on it!) But I leave the ending very vague. Outlines help me pace the story, so that not too much happens in any one section. I think, in the long run, they save time because I don’t end up with a lot of stuff I can’t use. In Wintermoon Ice I had about a thousand words of excised material. Not bad for a 100,000 word novel.

  6. Bertram Says:

    Suzanne, only a thousand words of excised material? I just finished editing one of my manuscripts. It started out at 118,000 words, excised 20,000 words and added 1000 for a total of 99,000. It stayed at 99,000 for a couple of years and it’s now less than 95,000. Sure hope that’s the final edit, or I will end up with a short story.

  7. C. Says:

    Great post — thanks for hosting it.

    I’m the opposite — I outline. I get a story in my head, and it festers there until it’s written down. An outline is a quick and easy way for me to get it on paper and out of my mind. It doesn’t have to be very detailed; I have one that’s 3 pages for an entire novel. I also like knowing I have a whole file folder full of ideas to work on later when I’m either stumped on my current WIP or finally finish it.

    That being said, I have been known to deviate from my outline on regular basis. But to each, their own.

  8. Bertram Says:

    C. — It’s good that you can outline. And even better that you came and gave us the other side of the story. I like thinking that all writers are different. Gives me hope that at least some books will be out of the common mold.

    I keep a notebook for ideas, bits of dialogue, scenes, research. I’m not one who can sit down and wing it. I need to know where I’m going.

  9. Margay Says:

    Wow, I am amazed by how many people wing it with their writing! I am among those who outline. Some outlines are more graphic than others, meaning it could included whole scenes complete with dialog (depending on the scope of the book), and in those cases, I consider the outline the first draft of the book. Sometimes, it’s just a little sketch of an idea that I then free-write from. I don’t always have to know how it’s going to end when I first start out because I figure if the beginning is strong enough (and I obsess over getting the beginning just right), the end will write itself. And sometimes it rewrites itself. Case in point, I rewrote the ending of Nora’s Soul about five different ways before I settled on the final one. At least.

    Great post, Dellani!

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