OUTLINE your novel or don’t?
Wow it’s been a long time since the last blog hasn’t it? Well, when you’re busy rewriting almost a year’s worth of work into a stronger, tighter, more cohesive story, you don’t have much time to blog. Also, there wasn’t anything to talk about. Sure I read some books, maybe could’ve written some reviews, but I’ve got a 100k novel to finish and there ain’t enough time in the day for blogging.
Until today. (Well, today for you is going to be a much different today for me.)
Let’s talk about mother f-in’
Many writers (including best sellers) say that they live and breathe outlines. James Patterson who’s currently the number one bestseller on the market says that all of your story problems could be resolved with a great outline.
But then you have Stephen King, who is also an international best seller say, “I don’t work from an outline, or anything like that. It’s just that these ideas will connect with me on some level.”
What’s a newbie writer supposed to do? Well, my editor told me to write an outline so she could help me with the structure of my book, so that’s what I did.
I opened a new word document. Focused my stream of consciousness into a blank screen. Hummed along as I typed my fingers into bloody nubs. Took a look at what I had written, smiled, and then proceeded to throw myself out the window.
I HATE OUTLINES! I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate writing outlines! HATE EM!
There are writers who love to write outlines and those that don’t. I don’t. Maybe I’m weird, but I have a hard time thinking in Roman numerals:
III. Our protagonist has a knife to his throat,
A.) He must outwit his opponent
- He yells, “Look at that giant rat.”
B.) Opponent stares at our hero and shoots him in the face.
Or if your James Patterson, your outline is a series of paragraphs that details what happens in each chapter.
Our naked protagonist has just finished making love with his wife. He pulls out a cigarette, has a smoke, and then something falls out of the closet. Another man. “Who is he?” His wife asks
(Sidenote: I took the James Patterson masterclass recently and got to look at his outline first hand. I can’t say that the masterclass was super worth it, but I did gain some valuable insight in improving my work. So basically, it’s up to you whether to take it or not. 90 bucks won’t kill you, but the class is not going to blow your mind either.)
To write the outline for my book which spans approximately 120,000 words give or take, took me around 3-6 weeks, and guess what? I never even finished the damn thing. In the fourth act, I highlighted, bolded, and wrote in caps **DON’T KNOW HOW THIS ENDS YET!** or in more confusing terms, I know how the story ends but I don’t know HOW the story ends. You catch my drift? No? Who cares.
You guys’ll figure it out.
Anyway, for me and other writers who like to “discover” a scene. Writing an outline is an excruciating session of bashing my head against the wall.
Let’s say, I write an outline about a protagonist on the run from a police helicopter after being accused of murder.
Then what? I don’t know, you’re asking me? Cue the flatline, doctor this patient Is dead. I stare at the screen with drool coming out of my lip and then eventually just go play video games instead. My problem with outlines is that I feel shackled. Without the characters interacting with one another I can’t figure out how to write what happens next. I need that energy, that momentum, that unexpected quip which pushes the story forward. Those don’t come to me in outline form.
Stephen King says he’s often inspired by the situation for his books. What happens if a boy is trapped with his mom and she’s going crazy? (Original idea for Cujo.)
I’m inspired by characters. “What if a woman became super powered and took revenge against her tormentor?” “What if a successful relationship doctor is about to jump off a ledge and kill himself?” “What if a tired detective discovers that the wife he thought he murdered was still alive?”
So for me, it’s harder to think up of situations that will move the plot forward. Therefore, I sometimes feel more dependent on free writing so I can discover the missing piece of the puzzle.
If free writing yields more results than outlining, why not free write the whole damn thing and be done with it? Well, because a years worth of work ends up becoming a years worth of garbage. Can you imagine writing 160 thousand words only to throw 90% of it away?
I can, because I did. PRO TIP: I don’t recommend it.
Free writing is liberating in that it let’s you discover many facets to your characters, but doesn’t really come together in a cohesive whole. You’ll have tons of backstories, subplots, motivations, and most of it won’t make any damn sense. When people complain about plot holes in movies, if it wasn’t intentional, free writing probably caused it.
Okay, so how can we avoid re-writing months of work, while also maintaining the spirit of our mentor and national treasure, Stephen King who writes without the safety of outlines?
My suggestion is to use a hybrid of both the outline and freewriting technique.
STEP 1: OUTLINE your BIG IDEAS first.
Brandon Sanderson of the Mistborn series calls these ideas, “Awesome moments.”
What are awesome moments? An incredible, death defying chase scene. The reveal of the killer. The plot twist that unmasks the true villain. The showdown between the master and his former student. An escape from a collapsing building.
These are the moments that excite you the most, the moments that you desperately want to write and read for yourself. Write the ideas for these moments out and put them aside.
CHAPTER 15 (Placeholder) <character name> has entered an abandoned factory and finds the corpse of a young girl, the president’s daughter. If the President finds out she’s dead, he will launch a nuke at <antagonist>.
CHAPTER 16: ??? TBD (to be determined)
CHAPTER 17: <protagonist> is racing against the clock. The nuclear missiles have been fired but the only one who has the codes to stop it is the President himself. He’s gone into hiding in an underground bunker.
STEP 2: Free-write that $h!t
What do you do with blank chapter 16? Free write it! If you have a general idea of what you want to happen next but are unsure because you have no clue what your characters are thinking or feeling at the moment, start writing. Write five hundred words or an entire scene if you’re really feeling it, but make sure you’ve not written an entire book out of it. I assure you, no matter how brilliant you think it is during the moment of writing it, the end result of your marathon will be utter shit.
If you like wasting your time, hey, it’s a free country, do what you want. But I can guarantee that when you reread that first draft, you’re going to be horrified. No matter if you’re writing a short story, an essay, a damn blog, that first draft is going to suck.
If you outline, it’ll suck less and you’ll have a better handle on how to fix it.
If you freewrite, you’re taking a gamble on giving yourself more work and spending more time on a book that shouldn’t have needed those extra months.
As you freewrite and do the outline, the pieces will start to fall into place. You’ll start to think aloud, “But wait, this screws up the motive for the next scene.” The outline is essentially a watchtower guard for your novel. It can see plot holes and can also see what elements are needed to push the story forward.
STEP 3: Cut that $h!t out
Do I really need the backstory of a random taxi driver, no? Cut it.
Why do we care about the police background of our protagonist if it’s not reflecting changes in the present? Cut it.
Our characters are having a loving, tender moment that is intended to make the reader feel good. Yeah that’s nice and all, but did those characters earn it? Cut it.
Write out a sloppy draft, put it into the outline, fix your outline, then fix your scene. Or, if while writing your fixed outline into a scene a better idea comes along, update your outline with the new plot twist. Rinse and repeat until you have an entire book.
(BONUS!) having an outline also allows you to get your editor involved earlier. They can help point out structural story problems before you spend big money on a developmental edit and everyone likes to save money.
Look, we’re all going to make mistakes when we first attempt this craft we call writing. It’s not going to be perfect out of the gate and you shouldn’t be striving for perfection. What you should be striving for is doing the best that you can at this point in time and making sure you tell a story.
I had become so overwhelmed and influenced by negative criticism that I lost sight of the story and what I wanted to accomplish with my book. Would creating an outline have prevented me from rewriting this novel for the billionth time?
The answer is: no.
This is all a learning process. If I didn’t rewrite the book I would have rewritten something else. I’ve already rewritten this book more than a dozen times and each time I think I know the best solution, something better comes along and proves me wrong. At some point you have to step back, look at the work after you’ve polished it to perfection and say, “All right. You’re done.”
The bottom line is, no matter how hard you try to avoid making mistakes in writing your first or third book, you’re going to make mistakes. People are going to call you out when there’s a plot hole, point out a factual error, or just plain write in their review that your book was the worst drivel they had ever read in their lives. It’s going to happen, and if you’re afraid of people criticizing your baby, then you’re not going to make it as an author.
You can follow every step from every author you admire down to the letter and still have a story that sucks. The hard truth of the writing process and why I’ve rewritten my book so many times is because there is no set formula. There is no instruction manual on creating a book. If it comes together and does well, that’s the magic of practice, practice, practice. Sometimes you nail it out of the park and sometimes you strike out.
Once you accept that you will make tragic mistakes with your first book, that you might have screwed up, that your outline has failed you, that your free writing has failed you. Once you understand that this is a part of the process and you still have the guts to pick up a pen and write again.
The world will be your oyster.