Deviating from a Book Outline

It’s always interesting to hear from other writers about the methods they use to draft their novels. Many authors outline carefully and extensively, while others simply start writing and see where the story goes. I’ve heard about some who don’t use a formal outline, but still develop some type of framework to establish where the story is headed.

I’m still not sure which side of the debate John and I fall into. When we wrote 60th Hour, we never drafted an outline, but we had a pretty good idea of where the story was going right from the start. For Prophecy’s Malignant Son, we used a hybrid structure — we did not outline the entire book at the beginning. Instead, we wrote an outline for three or four chapters ahead of the chapter we were currently writing. We were also world-building at the same time, because it was a brand new fantasy universe for us. Obviously, the second draft of the manuscript became very important to tie everything together. Our fellow Emerald Cove writers also gave us valuable feedback. In some cases, their critiques led to multiple revisions of key chapters of the book.

When January 1, 2021, happened to fall on a Friday (the day my weekly blog post is due), I took the plunge and developed some writer’s New Year’s resolutions. One of those resolutions was to draft a full outline for our next novel before we started writing.

We met that resolution. Even before we finished editing Prophecy’s Malignant Son, John and I had already started outlining the sequel. Working together, the two of us came up with a chapter-by-chapter outline, and began writing the new book.

As of yesterday, we had finished Chapter 8 of the new manuscript and started on Chapter 9.

But an interesting thing happened along the way, as we wrote those first chapters. We started going off script. At first, the deviation was minor — a chapter was too long, so I broke it into two chapters. The chapter numbers of the outline changed, but the rest remained basically the same.

The next change was far more substantial. At some point when writing Chapter 6 or 7, an idea occurred to me, which would revise events to add a new (and I think more interesting) plot twist. It won’t change the book’s ending, but it will greatly alter the middle section of the book to add more drama. It also solves a timing issue that had worried me (split plotlines will now come together later in the book). We are still several chapters away from writing the new scene, but we need to revise the upcoming chapters to build up to it. A few of the ongoing character interactions that were originally spread across the entire book will now take place much earlier.

So, having made those changes, are we still writing from an outline? Should we revise the outline to reflect the changes or simply run with them?

Interestingly, I’ve found myself doing exactly what we did with our prior book — outlining three or four chapters ahead. So maybe that really is my outlining “comfort zone.” I guess we’ll see as the book progresses.

For all you authors out there who are reading his blog post: what do you prefer? Do you outline? If not, how much of your story’s end do you know when you first sit down to write. Feel free to leave a comment to the post. I would love to hear from you!

-Susan 10/15/2021

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