TO OUTLINE, OR NOT TO OUTLINE…IS THAT THE QUESTION? by Miko Johnston

“Do you use an outline when you write?”

Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker wants to know. What’s really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, corkboard with index cards, or any other method. I asked several authors, including several of my co-WWG members, if and how they organize their writing.

M. M. Gornell, whose mysteries include the ‘Route 66’ series, doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”

Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook and Tea and Comfort, varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed. “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”

G.B. Pool, whose novels include the Johnny Casino Casebooks and the Ginger Caulfield P.I. series, favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”

Bonnie Schroeder, whose work includes Mending Dreams and the upcoming Write My Name In The Sky, works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spread-sheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” To learn more, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”

“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman. The Legend of Cavall, the first novel in her middle school series, will be published by Harper Collins next year.

Jackie Vick, of the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries and the newly released Civility Rules, always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it’s too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she recently decided to try out Scrivener software. “I’m going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It’s gotten good reviews!”

Mike McNeff, author of the popular Robin Marlette thriller series, always has an ending in mind when he starts a new story. “I don’t how I’m going to get there, the characters figure that out.” Mike uses the writing software Scrivener.  “If you use the tools in Scrivener, it organizes all aspects of the book for you as you go along. I particularly like the feature of breaking the book into scenes. It makes it easier to review  each scene to make sure they move the story forward.”

For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

“I think it’s very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song, and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. “I’ve never used any of the writing programs. I’m a freewheeler.”

What about me? I began writing the first novel in my A Petal In The Wind series with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster. I hope so, as I haven’t finished book three yet and still have one more to go.

From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on point, or on deadline. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us rather than taking on assignments. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help keeping our characters or plotting on track.

It should be noted that neither I nor any of the authors interviewed have hard deadlines for completing a book, which may in part explain why so many of us prefer the story to evolve on its own. Having that luxury of time allows the development of more complexity, more originality – in short, better writing – as opposed to having to bang out a formulaic manuscript to fulfill an annual requirement. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”

 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2015 edition of writersinresidence.blogspot.com

 

4 thoughts on “TO OUTLINE, OR NOT TO OUTLINE…IS THAT THE QUESTION? by Miko Johnston

  1. An outline doesn’t work for me, but I write a simple bio for my main characters including their physical characteristics. I let my characters lead me along, one incident promoting another. While writing my novel, Pauline, A New Beginning on Whidbey Island, I didn’t have a clue how her story would end until the last two or three chapters. Now, I find, it isn’t finished as folks are asking for more.

    1. I thought your book concluded well, but since I fell in love with your characters, I want the story to continue as well.

  2. Kenneth Atchity says, in “A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write” (W.W. Norton, 1986), that an outline is useful during revision, but he prefers the roadmap to the outline in the first draft. The roadmap is your vision of the story: Where do I think I’m going? During revision you decide what comes first and what comes next and what comes after that. Anne LaMotte lays her chapters out on the floor and rearranges them until they’re in what she thinks is the best order. Organization is really important to keep the reader from becoming confused and maximize dramatic tension and avoid anti-climax, even when you get past the climax.

    1. Your point about organization is well taken. There are infinite ways of organizing a first draft and even more ways to revise that draft, which is the point of my blog. The key is finding a system that works for you and your manuscript.

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