Sunday, July 3, 2011

Writing Advice 3—Outlining

To outline or not to outline, this is an old debate in the writing world. Some writers insist on outlining, while others declare outlining is unnecessary, and perhaps even limiting. I was on a writer’s panel at a convention recently where one writer declared that if they were to outline the story they would know what was going to happen, and if they knew that, there would be no fun in writing it anymore. They also mentioned that they could not write a mystery novel to save their soul, even when challenged to do so. These two statements should tell you a lot about outlining, the pros and cons, and whether it is right for you.

What is outlining? Simply put, it is plotting ahead, figuring out where the story will go in advance of writing it. As novels are usually long and involved things, and most of us don’t have perfect recall, we write notes to ourselves. This is an outline. Outlines, and outlining methods, vary considerably from simple vague sketches to the analytically detail-obsessed straightjacket type. In other words, some have a handful of bullet points necessary to form the story, and others list in specifics everything that will happen in each chapter, almost like Cliff notes.

If you find yourself in the mood to write a story, you don’t want to spend hours, weeks, or even months planning the whole thing out first. That sounds far too much like work instead of fun. Most people just want to sit down and start hammering out what’s in their head. It is like deciding to go to the beach on a hot Saturday afternoon. You just want to throw on a bathing suit and go, you don’t want to stop to pack a blanket, towel, sunscreen, a cooler of drinks, lunch, sandals, sunglasses, etc. The result is that you get to the beach right away and you can immediately start enjoying the day.

After ten minutes you realize a blanket and towel would really have been a good idea, as would a cold drink but it’s too late now, you’re already there and it would be so much more trouble to leave and then come back. After a half hour you realize how much your friends would have liked this. Most of them work on Saturday. Of course if you had planned ahead, if you had mentioned it to them a week ago, they could have gotten off work. Better yet, if you had planned this two months ago, you could have rented a beach house with all your friends for the whole weekend. You could have stocked it with food and drink and reggae music. So as you sit alone on the naked sand feeling your skin burn thinking about all the things you could have done if you had spent a little prep time, you realize being at the beach isn’t as much fun as you expected. Instead you start thinking about how much fun going out to dinner would be. So you pack up and leave, forgetting all about the beach and chalking it up as another failure.

Translated in terms of novel writing, you get a few thousand words into the story, don’t know where to go next, lose interest, and then another idea for a different story hits you and you dump the old one, only to repeat the same mistake.

So you should always outline, right?  

Ever known a person who doesn’t know the word spontaneous? Who can’t do anything without planning each step? The idea of going to the beach for them is too exhausting to even think about, but if they manage it, it won’t matter that they are giving free parasailing rides right in front of them, taking advantage of this is unthinkable because it wasn’t planned for. This type of person, even if they have a week to prepare, won’t have enough time. What if they get sick? Should they bring aspirin? Band-Aids? Hydrogen-peroxide? Do they need to put the local emergency room on speed dial? What if it rains? Umbrella? Tent? It doesn’t matter that they’re going to be dressed in a bathing suit, these things still perplex them. What about food? What about the storage of food? Will the heat spoil them? How do you treat salmonella? Ice! How do you keep it frozen? The list goes on until the person gives up, defeated before ever setting out.

Translated: The requirement to outline too much kills the fun of discovery and makes the effort too daunting to start. It also often prevents writers from taking advantage of ideas that organically crop up that would make the story flow naturally.

When I first started writing I never outlined. I doubt anyone does if they start writing stories for fun. The result is that I started far too many novels that were never finished. When I began thinking more seriously about writing, when I considered that I might like to do it as a career, I realized a different approach was necessary. The reason was, I was wasting too much time. The technique for non-outline writing is to write a draft, see where it went wrong and write it again, see where it went right, and write it again. After three or four drafts the book is ready for either a normal editing pass or the trash. When applying this technique to 150,000 word novels, the time lost can be counted in years. Anything that can reduce the amount of rewriting is a huge advantage.

I suppose everyone has heard of a writer who took ten years or more to write their book. In some cases this is due to elaborate research, or being interrupted by personal crisis, and has nothing to do with the actual writing time. And yet I’ve heard about people who have done draft after draft as years slip by. For those of you looking to make a living from writing, you can’t do it by writing a book a decade. I searched the net with the query, “how long does it take to write a book?” The general concenus was 2-5 years. Interestingly they supported this with the data that Tolkien took 12 years to write his trilogy and that Stephen King writes 20 pages a day. I suppose this was meant to show the range of writers. What I think it actually shows is how long writers used to take to write books versus how long they take today. I bring this up because it was actually a topic at a panel I was on.  The older authors spent a year or three on a single novel but nowadays publishers would actually like their authors to put out two books a year, and some self-publishing advocates insist you should be publishing 4 books a year. If that seems too fast, consider that in the days of pulp fiction, writers were expected to crank out a novel in a week.

I personally wrote the first two books of my series each in two consecutive months, so 4 weeks a novel. I don’t advocate this, and I don’t write at that pace usually. I prefer a good 6-7 month schedule. I usually write heavily in the winter and slack off a bit in summer. A large part of how I can keep this pace is due to having the story framed-in. This means a lot less re-writing. Usually when I finish my first draft, that draft only needs to be augmented and tweaked rather then torn apart and rebuilt.

There is also the concern of going stale. Rewriting is like cleaning a window too much, you begin to deteriorate the surface and the glass fogs with scratches. First drafts are usually the most vibrant, with each re-work the life is dulled a bit. Editing an existing story to fix problems never flows as well as a story written correctly from the start. Laziness is usually the culprit. With words already down, you want to preserve as much as you can, but often that hinders your ability to make a better story.

And there is one more problem. It’s one thing to spend time writing off the top of your head for the fun of it. In this way writing can sometimes be like reading a book that you have control over. You never know what the next page will bring and as such it can be a blast. The problem comes when you have to make sense of it all, then you run into the “Lost Syndrome.”

Readers have certain expectations when they begin a story. When they start a murder mystery they expect that they will eventually discover who the killer is. If you end the story and never reveal this, it can really tick them off. And if you create a truly compelling situation, like a man drowning in the middle of a desert, the reader expects you to explain how that happened. They also expect it to be logical, or at the very least plausible. A weak story drops in a last minute device to solve the problem, a strong one provides the answers throughout the tale so that the end is not only sensible, but in retrospect—inevitable.

So what I call the Lost Syndrome is when a writer begins a story with a great premise then builds on that. Each time the story hits a lull, the writer throws in something extremely compelling, the more wild and insane the better. Mysteries build on mysteries. Each time the writer does this, the reader is engrossed and turns the pages faster to see how in the world the author will account for all these zany things. Only problem is, the author has no answer. They were just writing along with no real plan—sort of like an unemployed person in a shopping mall running rampant with a credit card buying things to keep their mind off of how they are going to pay for all of it.

This can often result in:
1. A terrible last minute device being added to account for everything, ala “It was a just a dream.”
2. The whole idea is trashed.
3. A plausible solution is invented and then all the elements that don’t work are removed, usually leaving a sensible, but boring story.
4. Nothing, or only a few things are explained.

None of these are good results.

When I started using outlines it was a gradual thing. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, meaning that I wasn’t aware that writers made outlines. You have to remember I was making everything up as I went. I realized through accident that the more time I spent thinking about a story before writing it, the easier things went, the less editing I had to do, and the better it turned out. I also had a far greater chance of finishing a work when I knew how it would end before I began.

So in my early stages I just took a few months to “think” about a story, and found myself jotting down a few notes. Those notes became my crude outline. As time went on I built more intentional outlines going chapter by chapter bulleting out points I needed to make, and keeping track of PoVs (point of view, or which character's head I am seeing the events from) for each scene. This allowed me to review the plot and then rearrange scenes to balance the action-verses-info pacing, and to alternate opposing plot threads.

One of the huge advantages I noticed right away was that when I knew what would happen in the next chapter, it made it far easier to get through the relatively boring chapter I was stuck in. I force myself to write in order. As such when I get to a less interesting section I use the truly fun scene in the next section as incentive to do the dull work. I once mentioned that hopping around writing all the appealing scenes was like eating all the marshmallows out of a box of Lucky Charms. After they were all gone, you might as well trash the rest of the box.

So outlines are good for many reasons, but they aren’t written in stone. They are mostly guesses, like any battle plan. The moment you start the fight they begin to fall apart. The worst thing I think is to try and keep to an outline when the story is veering away. Characters and plots grow naturally out of plausibility and creative bursts that redirect the story. Fighting these opportunities results in a stiff, contrived book. The trick I found was to take those unexpected paths, but then reorient the outline to accommodate for it. This idea is to always be able to see the end from where you are in the story. If at any point you make a turn and you can’t see exactly how you will get from there to the end of your story, then you have to stop, take an hour or so and work out the problem. Once solved you resume until the next unexpected turn. The worst thing you can do, is push on blindly writing tens of thousands of words and find yourself in a locked room that your character can’t possible escape from.

So my outlines are pretty fluid things, and little more than skeletons with some chapters having only the single bullet point "something happens here." Here is an example of how I might have outlined the start of The Wizard of Oz.

The Farm (Depression era Mid-west)
      Gilch arrives with court order to take Dorothy’s dog Toto
      Dog escapes returns to Dorothy
      Dorothy fearing for Toto’s safety runs away from home

On The Road
Dorothy runs into circus performer/seer/wizard
Old guy scares Dorothy into going home

You can see a lot of potential problems already. There are a lot of unexplained questions. Why is Gilch upset with Toto? How does Toto escape? Who exactly is the old guy and how does he scare Dorothy into going home? And these are just plot issues. What about setting and characterization? Where does this story take place? Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma? Who is Dorothy living with—parents? What are they like? Does she have brothers and sisters? Farm hands? Neighbors?

These kinds of questions can often be explored while writing. In doing so, you can still have the fun and excitement of discovering things about the story and yet, feel secure that the story will work out in the end.

If you have ever been top-lining, that is to say rock climbing where you have a rope tied to you and secured from above so you really can’t fall, you'll know that the fact that you know you are safe doesn’t distract from the idea of falling. The thrill is still there, it’s still frightening. Minimal outlining is that way. When writing, you don’t really know it’s there until you’re stuck and then you’re glad it is.

Building an outline is pretty simple. You just start with a few ideas. Where the story starts, something that happens in the middle and then the end. This gives you three bullet points. You run the story though your head a few times and you get more ideas—more points. If you’re lucky you know the anti-climax and the climax. Imagine telling your idea to someone. What questions might they ask? (Exactly how old is this Dorothy? How are you going to account for Oz?) Answering these questions add more points to the outline. After a while these bullet points work like one of those draw-by-number pages. You can sort of see the story taking shape. Still it isn’t until you begin writing, that you draw that line that connects the dots and the whole thing comes alive. A few dots might need to be moved, some erased and some added, but in the end you have a well constructed story ready for polishing.

That’s the bell. And remember, no running in the halls. Next week we’ll get into the nuts and bolts with: The Who, What, and the Where.


  1. Wow! no comments? You know, on a knitting forum I recently expressed a similar sentiment, about outlining, but I wasn't quite as wordy. I think the most interesting point is that people dont outline because they are afraid of loosing what makes the writing fun, and I used to feel the same way. I dont anymore. Although, not for the same reasons you do. I write an outline, often on paper, then I file it away in a drawer, perhaps never to see the light of day again. Then I write another outline in word, and save it on a flash drive, which gets filed in my sock drawer, perhaps never to see the light of day again (I always find the most interesting things in my sock drawer). I typically also write a third outline (as I go) so that if I change things I can see what exactly needs to be changed, this is more of a chapter synopsis once a chapter is written. Oh, and in all of my outlines, I typically have 3-6 endings, depending on how mean I want to be to my characters on any given moment.

    The one type of person you forgot when talking about the beach is the kind of person, who would wake up in the morning and go. Get there without a towel, food, sunscreen etc. Then buy a towel from a boardwalk vendor, and make friends and bum sunscreen from the people around them, and have an awesome time.

  2. Sara,

    How would you relate that buy-a-towel-person to writing a novel? A celebrity biography written by a ghost writer?

  3. Re: Tolkien's 12 years
    He was also working as a Professor doing academic research and teaching, which could explain alot

  4. Absolutely, Tolkien had a few other things going on, and I'm not sure his focus was on becoming a published author.

    However, I should point out that having a day job doesn't effect this timeline much. It makes it harder, but I know authors who put out more than a book a year while maintaining a day job.

    Nora K. Jemisin, author of A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, for example is someone I met at the Nebulas and is a counseling psychologist and yet able to put out at least a novel a year.

  5. Nice post, Mike. Ah outlining.... the eternal question. I agree with you on the beach metaphor, but I think that it is possible to edit something without having it go too dry. It's a danger yes to butcher your story if you start to lose interest, but I think that's one of the reasons why taking a break and doing something else gives writers needed perspective. And it a way, it is interesting to look back and see how much your story has changed in the editing process. This has happened to me, even in cases where I do use an outline. I just get to the end and realize there will have to be some major changes to bring the real story out.

  6. "Characters and plots grow naturally out of plausibility and creative bursts that redirect the story." I have found this to be soooo true with every book. Couple that with your analogy with top-lining, and I think you have a winning combination, and case, to outline. Kinda like a cross between "pantster" and a "plotter" ...

  7. Sullivan,

    I wasn't, I was just saying you forgot a type of person in your analogy.

  8. Thanks Michael. One of the most enlightening comments from someone with a keen sense of humour and occasion regarding what compels writers to write pondered it was like "the moron who enjoyed having two men with baseball bats pound him in the stomach for hours on end because it felt so good when they stopped." So leading up to writing your tale the decision is whether whatever it takes to get there, to decide on as you've provided here, step/outling or travel upon the longer road including detours with the likes of stream of consciousness. My question is - what propels you forward? Is it outlining and keeping to a schedule to keep procatination at bay? As far as writing discipline goes do you keep to a daily regime like some authors do. Or are you fairly flexible?

    Paul Watson
    New Zealand

  9. I've heard this a number of do you manage to keep going? How do you manage to finish a novel? To me, this is like asking how do you manage to finish that ice cream sundae? I don't understand it. I used to forgo sleep in order to write stories. Finding time, or incentive, or a desire to write is not a problem. How I finish a project like a novel is that I want to see how the story comes out.

  10. Hi Michael and thanks for this lesson.
    Thanks to your explanation I realize that I have been outlining, sort of. I sketch out my ideas on post its, then organize them on a word processor. That's when I see the holes in my story and rearrange the happenings a bit.

    Of course my first published stories... I just wrote from my head and yes had to edit and reedit around my "Lost Syndrome" and experienced all of the symptoms you expressed.

    Now I kind of see outlining like writing a business plan, but had been wondering if I had to make my outline so formal.
    Thank you for letting me know that there is a wide range of outlining forms and one should do what actually works for them.
    Now if I can learn how to stop trying to jam so many happenings into a single story, well that would help me... : )
    On to my next lesson! Thanks.

  11. It is enlightening to find someone with the same... respect for outlining as I have. To me it is simply a tool to plan through certain areas of the story. It isn't written in stone. It is just sort of a path that is used to keep things in order. If it changes, it changes. Thanks for the article! Great stuff.

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