Do You Outline Your Novels Before You Write?

Notice that the title of today’s blog post does not say: “Should you outline your novels before you write?” I don’t think there is a correct answer to the “should you outline” question. From what I have heard and read, it seems to be a matter of author preference. There are successful authors on both sides of the outlining issue.

Making an outline of the plot before you write a novel has advantages. You know exactly where the story is headed and how to get there. Although I cannot speak for everyone, I suspect an outline helps to prevent writer’s block — you know what you need to write and the only problem is how to write it.

Writing a novel without a detailed outline can also be fun. You can let the tale change as you go and see where the characters and situations lead you. Of course, at the end, you will probably need a significant rewrite to change the meandering manuscript into a cohesive story, but every book needs revision before it is publishable.

I have tried writing novels both ways. For the book John and I wrote just before 60th Hour, I started with a detailed outline, with headings, subheadings, etc. I began the outline by using each of the four main sections of the story as the headings, and the individual chapters within each section became the subheadings. Many of those chapter subheadings also contained sub-subheadings detailing events within that chapter. I knew precisely where the novel was going and how to get there. The book ended up very long and, based on comments I received from reviewers, was rather slow moving. I don’t know if the outline was partially responsible for that or if it was simply due to my own inexperience with writing at the time. I suspect the latter.

The one lesson I learned from that experience with outlining was to go “off script” from the outline if it helps the story. When I reached the third part of that novel, John suggested adding a set of characters and subplot that were not in the original outline. At first I resisted, partly because his suggestion deviated from the outline. Eventually, I revised the book in accordance with John’s suggestion. To this day, I think the book became far more interesting once those characters were added. (Obviously a story that really starts to move in Part 3 is not ready for publication! Maybe someday there will be a revised version, but right now John and I are having too much fun with the new story.)

For 60th Hour, I did not prepare an outline, although I knew pretty well where the story was headed before I started writing. Because John and I were not working from an outline, we had a lot of flexibility to add characters and subplots as I was crafting the story. On the other hand, it meant that the second draft required extensive rewriting to make everything work well together. (As I recall, I ended up with at least four major rewrites of the manuscript before it became the novel you can buy on Amazon.) While Chapter 1 (originally the prologue) pretty much stayed the same throughout the writing process, the other early chapters of the book changed extensively in later drafts of the novel. For example, the chapter that introduces Aubrey in the current novel did not even exist until a later draft. Originally, she first entered the story when she showed up in Demesio’s office, already furious at him.

For the current novel (Prophecy’s Malignant Son), I am using a hybrid outline system. I know generally where the novel is headed, but I have not outlined every chapter in detail. Instead, I am outlining one or two chapters ahead of where I am writing. Because this is a new universe, John and I are also engaging in fantasy worldbuilding as we go. Undoubtedly, the manuscript will require a major overhaul during the second draft to bring everything together, but so far I am keeping up with my 500+ words per day, so the system seems to be working.

Of course, the comments in today’s post are meant to apply to novels and fiction writing. Non-fiction is a whole different world. (And it is a world I am definitely not qualified to speak about.) The one time I wrote a non-fiction book, not only was the outline essential, it was mandated by the publisher before I even started typing a single word.

Anyway, the key point of today’s blog post is: keep writing! If an outline helps you write fiction, then use an outline. If preparing the outline becomes such a hindrance that you don’t actually start the novel, then don’t bother with one, just write and have fun.

-Susan 12/11/2020

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