I realize that I run the risk of offending and/or alienating some readers by what I’m about to say, but I’m feeling strongly about it today, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it. I think outlines, especially rigid ones, can hurt the writing process instead of help it.
There. I said it.
Now, a caveat to that: I know there are tons of authors in the world of publishing who have a concrete outlining process that works for them. And that’s just it–it works for them. It may not work for someone else, but it helps them crank out books, and I’m all for that. I suppose my issue today is with the myriad (it seems) programs and people out there who promise that if you follow their 40-point outline or their all-inclusive “get to know your characters” regimen, or the “ten steps to a writing bestseller” program, you are all but guaranteed a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark novel.
Pssst. It’s never that easy.
Sure, there are the James Patterson’s of the world who churn out a book or more a year–I’m sure he and others like him have a set process that (obviously) works. But as a relatively new author, I know how tempting those programs are. “I can use this outline and it’ll result in a full, complete, all-plot-holes-tied-up novel? Sign me up.”
I’ve yet to find one that works for me. They all begin to seem too rigid, too set in stone, sometimes even formulaic. In most of the outlines I’ve glanced through, there are pretty similar plot points you have to hit, at the same points, and with a similar number of characters. I agree that certain things need to happen in a novel to make it a good story–rising action, climax, falling action, all that. (A “denouement” is in there somewhere–I remember that from high school English, although it’s probably called something else now.) Yes, these things make a novel. But everything else is up for consideration, as far as I’m concerned.
I was just telling a friend the other day that before I sit down to write, the story is clear in my head. But, like a dream that dissipates as soon as you try to talk about it, that crystal clear vision in my head goes up in smoke as soon as I start to write, and I feel like I’m fumbling, trying to tie shoelaces while wearing thick gloves.
It’s a similar thing for me with outlines. I know in my head what’s going to happen in the story because I’ve spent time thinking about who these people are and writing random notes about them. (As an aside, these notes are everywhere–in the ‘notes’ section of my phone, on the back of receipts in my purse, on post-its on the kitchen counter, in the margins of my calendar.) I know who the characters are, what the main conflict is, the characters’ desires, what’s thwarting those desires, and how it all wraps up. But as soon as I start to fit that information into one of those formulaic outlines, all the goodness and spontaneity and magic goes out the window. I’m shoving a foot into a glove or a hand into a sock. Fumbling with the light off.
So, I’m not a total outliner (or “plotter” if you will), but neither am I a total “pantser” (i.e., flying by the seat of my pants, or opening a fresh Word doc and just seeing what happens.) I like to know where I’m going. I usually have a pretty good idea (if not the exact idea) of how the story will end before I write the first word. I don’t outline, but I do pre-plan. To that end, I recently read an article by Laura Drake on the website Writers in the Storm that has helped me tremendously with that pre-planning. If you’re a writer, I heartily recommend reading it.
In it, she summarizes a Michael Hauge conference she went to, so I suppose much of the credit goes to him, but I love how Laura explains it all. Instead of being an outline, it includes “12 components of a good story.” There’s no “you must hit this plot-point by page 100 of your novel or else” business. It’s not an outline so much as it is a list of points to keep in mind as you are thinking through your story. It’s loose enough that I can hang with it, but it also serves as a sort of connect-the-dots. With my current WIP, I’m finding that the more I reflect on my characters and figure them out, the more I can connect the dots. Hopefully that’ll help me bring the reader with me on my main characters’ journeys from where they started to where they will end–not too tied up with a pretty bow, but satisfying, nonetheless.