This Isn't Your Teacher's
By Lazette Gifford
Around six or seven years ago -- about the
time Forward Motion (http://fmwriters.com)
was starting to take off -- I still despised the idea of outlining. I hated
it, and wouldn't do it... I would start a novel as soon as I got a
character and an idea, and let it flow. I loved working that way and
couldn't stand the idea of being restricted in my creativity.
But two things happened:
My life became complex, and with less
time to write I found it harder to track free-flowing ideas and keep
My stories became more complex.
These two combined to make it increasingly
difficult to write a good first draft of a novel in my usual free-flowing
style. Since I have a rule that I have to finish everything I start, I
would push through to the end, but I found that many of those stories were
disjointed, the timeline skewed between characters, and important threads
and goals were forgotten.
Finally, I decided to write down a few
notes as I worked, giving me pointers to where I intended to go next. I
would write these notes as the last thing of the day, tacking them on the
end of the WIP (Work in Progress), so that I could look at the last lines
I'd written on the novel, see the notes for what comes next, and keep
This abbreviated outline-as-you-go method
helped me a great deal. So much so, that when I started getting new ideas
for what I was working on, I would write out a paragraph for each chapter,
pointing me to the right direction and what I needed to do to get the story
from one spot to the next.
Then I started writing things out for
novels I hadn't yet begun -- and found myself writing brief outlines without
consciously thinking about doing any such thing. I found it made writing a
novel considerably easier, and the stories far better, than what I had
written before. I don't think this is all because of the outlines, though.
I believe starting to write outlines came at the same time as I took a
general step upward in my writing skill, and the two complimented each
Since then, I've written both with and
without outlines. I still enjoy the occasional free-fall novel, but for the
most part I enjoy the outlined novels more. I've found that by outlining, I
not only have a more coherent book, I also have one with more depth.
Outlines allow even linear writers (like
me) to move back and forth in a simplified version of the story, adding in
sub-threads, and tacking in clues to important steps, and all those other
things that don't always arrive on time in your head. It is far easier to
edit the storyline in an outline than it is in a finished first draft.
It's also far easier to be daring and
creative in an outline than most people believe. The writer can put in
something experimental, play with it along the storyline for a while, and
then either keep it or delete it all. Adding something like that in the
actual story, and then having to delete it -- and all references to it -- is
Outlines need not be so detailed that you
feel you've already told the story. Sometimes I use very detailed outlines
because I find they're a wonderful way to stay focused for a quick writing
experience, but an outline might be a collection of single lines for entire
chapters or scenes.
Chapter 1 -- Tom leaves for the store and
runs into an old friend
Chapter 2 -- Tom and David head for a bar
and get into a brawl with some aliens
Chapter 3 -- Tom and David are rescued by
humans who ask them to join a secret anti-alien group
Writing an outline with this scant bit of
information isn't going to restrict anything more than thinking about the
story ahead of writing it would. What it will do is help the author
remember ideas and the sequence of events. It can include notes on
character development and worldbuilding, as well as those wonderful bits of
dialogue that come to you long before you can actually write them into the
Outlines are fluid, adaptable, and easier
to manipulate than first draft novels. They're another of the important
author's tools that many people ignore because they have a vision of an
outline as something they had to do in high school and hated. Once you get
over that idea, those of you who find that life is getting too complex and
interfering with your writing are likely to find the idea of jotting down a
few notes about your story not so bad after all.