Rebecca asks: Do you outline? Or do you just have a general concept of what you’re going to write? I know you do that spreadsheet thing, but do you start out that way, or not until after the first draft? Or something else entirely?

I have outlined. And I prolly will again in the future. But I hates it. There, I’ve said it: Nothing drives me crazier than outlining.

The Magic or Madness trilogy was outlined. It had to be because I sold it as a partial.1 And when you do that the editor wants an idea of what they’re getting. It took me weeks and weeks of round-the-clock work to produce that outline. It was hell. It made me scream and throw things. All I could think was, Why am I wasting my time writing this sketch of the novel when I could just be writing the bloody novel?

Writing that outline was far more painful and agonising than writing Magic or Madness. But I have a sneaking suspicion that part of why MorM was so fun and relatively easy to write was because of that outline. Everytime I got stuck, I pulled it out, had a good old squiz, and hey presto was back on track.

On the other hand, my first (unpublished) novel was written without any kind of outline and I had a lot of fun writing it too. But it was written under only self-imposed deadlines and over many many many many years—I started it in 1988 and finished the first draft in 1999.2

I also wrote the first draft of Magic’s Child without an outline. But the ending kept not working. I rewrote it countless times and it kept defying me, until I had a sitdown with my editors, Eloise and Liesa. For the meeting I had to rough out a new non-crappy ending. That’s right, I had to outline it. Did I enjoy doing it? No. Was it better than rewriting the ending uselessly another hundred times? Yes.

So for me outlines are an occasionally necessary evil. The book I’m writing at the moment seems to be swinging along fine without one, but if I get stuck I may just find myself sketching out the rest of the book in order to figure out what’s going to fly and what isn’t. I imagine it beats writing and rewriting the ending a gazillion times.

I may also find myself outlining my next novel, because it has a very tricky, scary structure and outlining might be the only way to figure it out satisfactorily. But I’ll start writing it first to see if I can wing it and only if that fails will I resort to a yukky outline.

But all of this is just me. I know lots of writers who swear by outlines. And others who won’t even use them to the begrudging extent that I do.

It’s like everything else—if it works for you then do it, and if it don’t, don’t.

  1. A partial is the suggestion of a book. In my case that suggestion included an outline of all three books and the first three chapters of the first book in the trilogy and assorted other bits and pieces. []
  2. Wasn’t being lazy. I got two degrees in that times as well, you know! []


  1. Rebecca on #

    see, that makes total sense to me. i never outlined a single story i wrote until last july. then i started writing this damn book for the third time, got about a third of the way into it, and realized that the same things that were wrong with the first two drafts were still wrong with the third one. so i decided to try the dreaded outline. i got about halfway through the story before i fizzled on the outline. i never did finish it. now i’m in the middle of nanowrimo, trying to write this thing for the fourth time, and i’m so lost that i’m just picking random scenes from all over the story for the sake of having something to write.
    right, so the outline, thus far, hasn’t really helped. but if i don’t outline, i have five bazillion plot holes, which is aggravating.
    but it sounds like from what you said that it’s a matter of knowing where the story is going to go. when you get stuck, that’s when you think of using the outline. hmm. thanks for the awesome post! 😀

  2. Rebecca on #

    and another thing too, nows i think about it- writing an outline seems to take the fun out of writing the actual book. if i get the story down, yeah, it’s not in novel format yet, but i still know everything that’s going to happen. part of the way i write is not knowing how it’s all going to end up. i may have a vague idea, but i’ll think every scene out in my head beforehand except the ending. which kinda seems counterproductive, b/c how can the story be worth anything if i don’t know where i’m going with it? or something. 😕

  3. Diana on #

    rebecca, I’ve heard that second argument of yours before — about it taking the fun out of it. i’m an outliner — and for me it’s more fun, because I’ve been looking forward to getting there. Outlining to me is like putting together the ingredients for a sundae, and then writing is like eating it.

    Except not always. Sometimes I outline just fine, and it all works well ‘on paper’ but then when I try to write it like hte outline, it dones’t work at all. And then I don’t know what to do. Correction: then I’m still figuring out what to do. 😉

  4. A.R.Yngve on #

    Writing an outline is like buying a car insurance… for a Ford Pinto. 😉

  5. May on #

    as a ex-diehard pantzer, i can say that, at least for me, outlining does not take the fun out of writing the book.

    like justine, taking a squiz at the outline when i’m struggling helps lots. i’ve progressed much faster with this wip (the first time i’ve written with an outline) then i ever have before.

  6. Rebecca on #

    hmm. alrighties, i may give in and try to pick up the outline again. thanks!!

  7. jonathan on #

    writing blah blah blah blah. cricket! ashes. thirty minutes away! woot!

  8. lili on #

    i love outlining. i think it’s the frustrated screenwriter in me. just love it. i have a whole system with different coloured post-its, and clear a whole wall of paintings and stick them up in acts and scenes and sequences and moments. it is possibly the most fun part of the process for me… just feeling the seperate strands really lock in with one another… mmm…

  9. Penni on #

    I did my first outline for my third novel and I don’t think I would ever write a novel without one. With my first I had the luxury of no contract and no deadlines (didn’t feel like a luxury at the time!) and I winged (wung?) it. With the second I had quite a few false starts, though I think I wrote a blurb like summary for Random House and Greenwillow before I signed the contract (discovering that a blurb is NOT an outline). With the third I was S.T.U.C.K. I had a brand new baby (as in 2 weeks old when the second book came out), a toddler, and 6 months to write a first draft. I used the snowflake method, recommended to me by Kate Constable. (I’m still 6 months behind schedule mind you. But baby. Toddler. Stuff.) http://www.rsingermanson.com/html/the_snowflake.html

    I definitely would NEVER write a trilogy again without immensely detailed planning. I also plan to keep a style sheet for each character with physical details so that every time i mentioned hair or eye colour, stature etc I wrote it down, so that by the third book, I didn’t live in fear of getting it wrong, because the characters do morph a bit in your head, especially with book cover illustrations and that sort of thing.

  10. Rebecca on #

    yeah, i’ve tried the snowflake method before, though i never finished the whole thing. in fact, i usually fizzled out way in the beginning. i’d get frustrated (like justine) because what i really wanted to do was write the book, not write about it. and i associate outlines with essays, as in those things you do for class so you can get a good grade that you would never ever in a million years bother to think about otherwise. 😉 buttttt, last night i got about halfway through an outline, yet again. this is probably the fifth or sixth time i’ve tried writing the same outline, and i’ve realized that every time i get to this certain point in the story, that’s when i start hedging. thus, perhaps it has more to do with the story than the outline itself. so i’m trying to work around that now. 🙂

  11. Penni on #

    Well, I must admit I was about 7 chapters in and then stuck when i used the snowflake. I don’t know that I would use it completely first. I think I need to write a few chapters first to get the voice going and to establish setting and a general ‘-ness’ before i could go an outline.
    But for what it’s worth I think you’re right, and it would be just as frustrating, if not more so, coming to this point when you’re actually writing the novel and getting stuck, so it sounds like outline could be quite freeing for you.
    But if it’s not helping then maybe you just try and write your way out of it?? That did work for me with my first but it took a few drafts, and a few years, to discover the heart of the story.

  12. Justine on #

    Rebecca: What Penni said. My first novel went through many twists and turns in the writing. There were gazillions of dead ends and characters who wound up being deleted or changing sex or age or religion. I estimate that I deleted way over 300 thou words in the process of writing it. (The final novel’s about 140 thousand words. I suspect 300 thou deleted words is an underestimate.)

    I definitely wrote my way out of trouble, figuring out what was going to happen by writing it. And if it didn’t work, deleting and starting over. It’s can be a slow way to write. But I learned a lot doing it.

    I say forge ahead anyway you know how. You’ve got fifty thousand words now, right? It would be foolish not to get to the end.

    Maybe you should just start writing from the point in the outline where you get stuck so you have something like this:

      Dee meets Sandra a killer with cold eyes

      Dee finds the alligator but can’t convince it to go with her

      [outline outline outline then when stuck start actually writing]

      The egg was golden. That was weird. Dee had done her research and learned that alligator eggs aren’t all the same colour—there’s variation—but golden wasn’t one of them.

      She scratched at the shell. It wasn’t paint.

      [keep writing the story]

    Then when you’ve figured out where your story’s going and what the end is you can go back and write the outlined parts.

    Does that make sense?

  13. Rebecca on #

    yeah, makes sense. although, the 50K this year was a lot more of me writing random scenes from the story just because i had to keep up with my wordcount. so now some of the scenes make absolutely no sense with the storyline. oh well. character development, right? 😛 i wound up drawing a cartoonish thing to get through that one scene that kept screwing me up. but, i’ve realized that i’ve written myself into a corner yet again. my character keeps. getting. kidnapped! argh! but that may, yet again, be a story problem, rather than an outline problem. i don’t want my mc to keep getting kidnapped, i want her to go out and do crap that gets her in trouble instead, b/c that’s way more interesting. (no tourist mcs!) but i seem to be having issues with that because i don’t want her to seem stupid either. so i think i am going to ditch the outline for a bit and pick up writing, ’cause the outline is starting to get annoying.

    ya’ll are awesome, by the way. 😀

  14. Delia Sherman on #

    All this is very illuminating. For myself, I have discovered that something very like what Justine was describing (some story, some outline (or summary), picking up the real writing again when a bit of dialogue or a scene suggests itself, repeat until the only bits of summary left are the things that don’t work, then beat them until they either submit or go away–or was that not what she was describing?) seems to be the way I work.

    That said, working on the summaries of the second and third volumes of the trilogy I’m writing seems to have made the task of Figuring Out What Happens Next somewhat less fraught than it usually is.

  15. matt on #

    because i’ve got a sick obsession with preparation (never you mind actually finishing something, that’s not important), the idea of outlining is always a good one, in my book (no pun intended).

    now, i’ve written nothing of consequence, so what i say has little in the way of real, actual gravitas, but on i’ll go, thus: outlining is wildly amusing, and does little but help clarify my ideas and provide the often-needed hammer to break through any blocks, of writer-variety, i might find along the way. good stuff, yes?

    i haven’t read all the comments here as closely as i should, but this is meant more as a tally in the “hooray for outlines” column.

    write on.

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