February 28, 2019
I do love having a GPS to guide us whenever we're making a road trip. Still, to be honest, I miss the days when I navigated using a combination of internet map instructions and a road atlas. There was something special about being able to see the whole trip laid out in front of me in that atlas. Now we use the GPS and it has certainly proved useful many times, but, depending which app we use, we never really get the big picture that way. At any given time we know where we're going only in the next few minutes. That works, but it often leaves me questions I wish I had answers to about the roads ahead.
That's probably one reason I really strongly prefer to outline a novel before I jump into writing it. With an outline, I don't just know what I'm going to do next, I know (at least generally) what I'm going to do for the entire novel journey. I know where I'll be today when I'm writing, but I also know where I'll be next week when I'm writing. It gives me a stronger sense of the pacing I need to get to the end of the journey, and I rarely stall along the way.
But What About Creativity in the Moment?
Many people who hate the very idea of outlines say that an outline stifles your creative discovery in the moment. Maybe it does for some folks, but it certainly doesn't for me. In fact, by knowing generally where I'm going, I'm emboldened to take small detours along the way because I know I'm not going to get lost in the creative weeds. I'll also know the road I plan to get back on (or at least run parallel to). Having a road map was a lot like that. As we planned the trip, we had specific roads in mind, but since I had a map, we could also give ourselves permission to make detours sometimes if something interesting popped up on a billboard. We could check the map and see how much that really would put us out of our way and see how easy it would be to get back on track.
Despite the fact that I map out (aka outline) every novel, I make side trips as I write. I make side trips when my characters clearly needed to do something different in the moment. I've even written mysteries where I switched the killer from one suspect to another. Because I had an outline, it was actually easier to do a huge change like that because I could see what clues I'd already laid (and where I’d put them) and which ones would need to change in the pages ahead. I could make the change without floundering because I could see the whole journey. So for me, outlines do not mean I can't be creative.
My Map Makes a Good Scrapbook
When we travelled in the past I've been known to shove interesting bits from a trip into the road atlas so they would get home safely. So you might find a pressed flower in there or a ticket stub to a natural history museum we discovered near a hotel we stayed in. In writing, my outline also serves as something of a scrapbook for my novel. Often when I'm outlining, I'm exploring my characters and their personalities. I'll get ideas for things I want my character to say or habits I want her to have as I'm telling myself the rough story through the outline. And I can put those scraps into the outline so I don't forget them later. Even as I'm writing, I'm constantly revising the outline as I think of things. This is especially true of scraps of dialogue I can envision springing up later as a result of the scene I'm writing now. I'll jot those scraps into my outline and then return to the manuscript.
Because my outline serves this scrapbook function, I normally write with two documents open: my novel and my outline. This is so I can easily stuff bits into the outline during the writing process.
Structure, Rules, and Other Ridiculous Outline Notions
Because I do mostly work-for-hire books, I often have to turn in an outline before I begin writing. Now for nonfiction, the outline sometimes has to follow a specific form, but often it doesn't, even with nonfiction. With nonfiction, it does have to show the way I plan to organize the book. Clear, smooth organization is one of the toughest things for new nonfiction writers so publishers do want to see that a writer can organize. They'll also sometimes want to see your opening paragraphs as well, just to see what voice you plan to use and how you'll grab the reader right away. Still, even with those two things being common, the publisher is far more interested in what the outline reveals than they are in whether you're using some rigid outlining form. So when I'm outlining nonfiction, my focus is on demonstrating how I'll engage the reader and showing how I'll organize the book. When I do those two things well, publishers are happy.
With fiction, I'm taking a different tact during outlining. Some publishers want to see an outline broken into chapters (and if they do, I will. Though, honestly, sometimes my chapter divisions change during the writing process). For me, though, the outline is my chance to tell myself the story. I'll focus on what my characters want (because motivation is king in characterization) and what my characters do (characters who are active are exciting characters). I'm also keeping my whole book goal in mind and making sure every chapter takes me in the right direction to reach it.
My fiction outlines are very loose. Sometimes I'll have only telling for several chapters. For chapters like that I'm just revealing who is in the chapter, what they want, and what they're doing about it (when doing this, I'm careful to keep the main character in their proper role of driving the novel forward overall). Sometimes I'll include some snippets of dialogue if they appear in my head that way (since I might as well record them as they're playing in my head). I don't fret about the structure so much since I'm just telling myself the story in the loosest possible way. This results in some odd outlines, but they’re ones that serve both editor and writer because they focus on character and action.
I've found over the years that nearly all publishers are far more concerned with what your outline is doing than with how it is doing it.
So, Should You Outline?
Writing an outline is a personal decision for each writer. If you do want to supplement your income with any work-for-hire (such as doing books for educational publishers) or you're interested in writing nonfiction for any publisher, you're probably going to need to become comfortable with outlines. When I was just getting into areas of publishing that required outlines, I practiced by writing outlines for finished works (my own and those by others). If you’re outlining a finished nonfiction piece, look at what your outline shows about how the piece engages the reader and how the piece is organized.
Outlining a finished fiction piece will help you understand how the story was told and how it was put together. And if you focus your fiction outline on the characters motivation and actions, you'll see how those are the things that drive story. Not only will you become better at outlining, you'll just become better at writing as you begin to see how stories are put together.
Should you outline your own novels? That's up to you. But you should at least learn what outlines might do for you. You never know what benefits you'll get from it.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.