Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Outlining: Do I Really?

Outlining. A contentious subject among writers; some feel lost without one, others couldn't outline ahead of time if their life depended on it. Most writing books espouse outlining in some form, as it generally saves the writer a lot of time and energy.

For many years, I thought I was a no-outline person. But a recent conversation has made me reconsider that view.

When I first started writing I was a total pantster. I had a handful of characters and a supposition, and I rarely had any idea what was coming beyond the next scene, or maybe two. Sometimes I had an idea for what the ending might be, but often it changed a lot before I got far into the story.

When I started writing short stories, a lot of times the characters-plus-supposition was the bulk of the story. These are the characters, this is the situation, this is how they got in the situation, and this is the resolution. Boom. Done.

Note that there isn't a lot of middle in this. The middle was always what messed me up before: if I had the beginning and the ending, I had no idea how my characters got from one to the other. Now, with the stories so much shorter, there was a lot less middle to muddle through. I was usually starting close enough to the end that by the time I got through the set-up I was almost to the end anyway, especially since I knew that part of the middle (and possibly part of the end) was going to be the nookie bit. And the ending had to be HEA or HFN.

I didn't think much of this transition, because as far as I was concerned I still couldn't outline. I tried, to be sure. I tried using note cards, I tried doing summaries, I tried drawing plot lines. Nothing worked for me. I'd just sit there and stare at whatever I was supposed to be writing on, because I couldn't figure out how I was supposed to get the story down. My brain would tangent like crazy until I gave up and started just writing the darn story.

So imagine my surprise when I was sitting down with E Victoria Flynn and Christi Craig over coffee, complaining about plotting, and Victoria says to me, "Yeah, but you outline."


"You do. You know where your story is going before you start writing it."

My first thought was, "Well, of course I know where it's going. How could I start if I didn't?" And then I remembered how I used to write, and I realized she might be right. This was a bit of a shock.

I still can't do a traditional outline. I spent some time in the last couple weeks trying to do an outline for 1794, a story I've already written, and still failed miserably. I know roughly what I want to change, and roughly how I might go about it, but I'm still not sure what the actual form will take or how the two characters are going to react to the changes. But I've managed to get the first three chapters revised without a clear outline, and I think I know where I'm taking the changes from here.

Does that make me an outliner? You be the judge.


  1. I used to just sit down and write without having ANY clue of where anything was going. I had a character, and that was it. But I quit doing that about a year and a half ago. Not intentionally or anything. I just started feeling compelled to plan and write out my plot points ahead of time.

    These outlines are not especially detailed or interesting. They're basically a list: "A happens; B happens; Sex; C happens; Sex; Conclusion." I hesitate to call them outlines; they feel more like driving directions.

  2. Hehe, that's a lot like what my "outlines" are like. Driving directions feels about right*. Nothing written down though, just in my head. I wonder if eventually I'll graduate to being able to put it down on paper...

    (*imagines backseat driving with her characters: "Turn left here. No, I said left! Hey!")