The Journeyman Author

On writing for writers.

A story without an outline is a person without a spine.

Right now, I’m supposed to be revising my outline for Martyrs before I go out of town for the weekend. I’m thirteen chapters in, I’ve edited the manuscript down by at least three chapters already (the exact number escapes me–my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it), and I have probably another seven or so to go. It shouldn’t take me long. I know where I want to go and what edits or rewrites I want to make.

However, I’m not working on my outline. Primarily, it has something to do with that “my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it” bit. It’s also freezing outside of my office, and I have “The Iron Giant” playing in the background, so I’m pretty comfortable sitting where I’m at. Regardless, I wanted to be somewhat productive tonight as far as writing goes, so here you go! New blog post!

My procrastination from my outlining also gave me the idea for today’s topic: the importance of outlining your novel.

We’ll start with an anecdote. When I originally began writing Martyrs, I was fifteen years old. It was really a simple beginning. I had characters, I had a general idea of what the hell was going to happen, and I had a computer with a keyboard. So, I sat down, and I wrote.

It took me a long time to get even halfway done with the book. That was partially due to time constraints in high school and partially due to having no clear-cut path upon which to take the story. I was having a really hard time writing, and that drove me crazy. When I got to college a few years later, I finally had the time to really look at the manuscript.

(I know, I know–more spare time at the university than in high school?! It took me a few months to make friends, so I was a hermit.)

Anyway, I digress. When I looked at the manuscript and reread the first fifteen chapters, I realized something. There was absolutely no coherent flow. The ideas didn’t mesh well together. Events that happened in the first chapter had absolutely no influence on the rest of the book. I had whole scenes that were nothing more than “filler text,” used to boost my chapters to an appropriate length. Basically–everything I had written was absolute crap.

I realized my problem immediately: I had gone into writing my novel with absolutely no direction or plan. The lack of preparation reflected in my work.

The first thing I did was outline the entire book–then the entire book series–and then, I wrote.

Since then, writing my novels has been significantly easier and, more importantly, my work has been substantially better. The ideas are more concise, the writing is more fluid, and the books, overall, turn out cleaner and clearer.

Outlining is such a vital part to writing a story I’m surprised at how many writers still don’t do it. Without an outline, a book simply will not hold together the way it should. Without an outline, you have floundering chapters with massive disconnects and little flow. Without an outline, how can a writer even start developing a cohesive story where every single element is thought out and put together in precisely the right way to make the work truly profound? I would argue that they couldn’t.

The arguments these writers–the non-outlining writers–have made to me against outlining are weak. It stifles the creative process, they say. It puts their writing into too “tight a hold” and stops the story from developing for itself. The worst one yet is probably the claim that outlining traps them and their story.

I shouldn’t be quite so annoyed. Ultimately, these are the words of amateur writers, probably writers who believe the first draft of their novel will be even remotely similar to the final draft, or those who think a longer piece of work is a better piece of work. These are likely the writers who haven’t yet realized that they will most likely rewrite the entire book at least once before they can even think of submitting it to agents–hell, maybe they’re even the same writers who don’t believe in rewriting at all (yes, I’ve met some of those, too).

Regardless, I have yet to be corrected. In my novel writing course, the very first thing we were taught to do was to outline our novels. Even in creative writing courses focusing on shorter fiction, nonfiction, and even essay writing, outlining was an essential step to starting off. Though with smaller works it may be vastly less important, for novels it stands true: starting a book without an outline is like building a person without a spine. It simply can’t hold together.

These non-outlining writers have fallen into believing grave misconceptions. They believe an outline is a strict rule and cannot be broken, which is absolutely not true. They believe they cannot change it once they’ve written it. They believe it stops them from being able to come up with new ideas.

But it doesn’t. All an outline does is give you a very cohesive, collective plan for where you want your story to go. If, while writing, you discover something that isn’t working, or if you develop a brand new idea to incorporate into your story, there is absolutely nothing telling you not to edit your outline and your story. All an outline can ever possibly do for a writer’s work is make it better–why wouldn’t anyone want that?

Perhaps later I’ll write a post about how I outline. Maybe someone out there would read it and actually find it useful. All I know is this: I wish I had learned about the importance of outlining seven years ago when I first started writing Martyrs. Perhaps I’d actually have the whole thing finished by now. Instead, I’m sitting in my office, putting off rewriting a brand new outline!

(Admittedly, this new outline is awesome, and I can’t wait to start writing this novel–again!)

Cheers,
Mary

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3 responses to “A story without an outline is a person without a spine.

  1. Aimee February 3, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    I love outlines. Both of the times I’ve tried to write novels without one, they’ve failed miserably. At the moment I don’t have the most in-depth outline for my WIP, but it’s an outline nonetheless, and I’m already further than I was last year when I tried writing without one!

    It’d be interesting to know how you outline. :) Mine seem to turn out differently every time!

  2. Liz Parker February 7, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    Some interesting points! I agree for the most part, but I don’t do very in-depth outlines. Mine usually include 10-15 pivotal scenes. The rest tends to come to me as I write (usually chronologically) or shower. :)

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