Zero to Go: My Sort-of Outlines

30 Apr

When I used to write as a teenager, I would start a story and muddle my way through without any idea of where I was going. I thought that my muse and the creative process would pull me along, that if the story was going to be good, it needed to be natural. To my teenage thinking, outlines were evil things that killed creativity.

And no, I never finished any of my teenage novels. Short stories yes, but never a novel.

In 2006, when I came back to novel-writing, I had spent three years as a professional organizer. Outlines, therefore, had become the only way to go. In fact I wrote three novels using detailed scene-by scene outlines. Yes, they changed as the story moved along, but at each change I would alter the outline so that throughout the first draft process I always had a completed outline.

Each of the three novels needed to be rewritten, mainly because I got bored part way through the novels. I already knew the whole story. Why bother writing it out? In the end, none of them came out as the story I had originally planned. They especially lacked energy and excitement.

For my fourth novel I decided to try the middle road. I knew where I wanted the main character to end up and I knew the outcome (more or less). I also knew the general theme of the story and who my characters were. From there I got writing and let the story guide me, outlining only one chapter ahead of myself.

Bingo! This time the writing was fun, smooth and fast. I never got bored and yet the story never petered out the way it would as a teen. Plus I gave myself the added challenge of not being able to go back and change anything in early chapters. If something didn’t seem to fit, I had to come up with a way to make it work. This made the writing more challenging but it forced me to be creative and not go for the simple or obvious choice in each moment.

I applied this process to the rewrite of my second novel and this time it came out exactly as the book I originally envisioned. The third novel has become a series and each book of the series is getting the same treatment. I know where I want to go and I know my characters; the rest is up to the writing in the moment. I’m loving the process.

However, I’m open to modifying the process in the future, because I’m not entirely sure how it will work for an idea that’s totally fresh. The fourth novel uses Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass World and characters as a base and the other novels are rewrites (meaning I already know the stories). I’m curious to see how my semi-outlines will cope with an idea that has no such existing base to start from.

Will the writing still flow and will the first draft tell the story I want to tell? Or will I still be faced with reworking the novel once I have the exploratory draft (as one writer colleague calls it) done?

How about you? What’s your experience with outlines? What works best for you?


Posted by on April 30, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, General Babblery


7 responses to “Zero to Go: My Sort-of Outlines

  1. David Bridger

    April 30, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    This is almost exactly how I operate nowadays, and it works like a charm. The first book I wrote this way was the first one I sold. 🙂

  2. Alex

    April 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    @David: I got the idea from a post you wrote. I owe you a world of thanks for showing me the way. I definitely feel that the fourth novel (called Undoing Alice) is the strongest so far.

  3. Patricia Royal

    April 30, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I’ve never tried outlining. The most I do is make notes of scenes when they come to me (usually when I’m trying to sleep.)

  4. Elizabeth Mueller

    May 2, 2011 at 2:27 am

    Alex, we did it! Congratulations! I have an award for you!!

  5. ChaseK8

    June 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for the tip, I am still a bit as you were in your teenage years and tend to avoid the outline process as it causes me to feel trapped and subdued. I am going to try out this way and see if it makes my writing flow more freely, while still staying in line!

  6. Brett

    June 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Even though I’ve been writing for years, I find that my process changes for each story.

    My longest works get something similar to what you do, with the mini-outlines, though I like to get chapter headings all the way through. These may or may not end up in the work.

    The shorter the piece, the more likely I am to see where the writing takes me… until I reach a point where it looks like it goes longer, then I’ll outline.

    Nice post! Thanks for sharing your process.

  7. Alex

    June 25, 2011 at 7:54 am

    @ChaseK8: Hope it helps! That trapped feeling is so creatively draining.

    @Brett: I find as well that the process changes with each story, but so far it’s been a tweak or two here and there rather than a wholesale change.


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