Outlining v winging it

One of the conversations that I have most frequently with my good friend, Diana Peterfreund, is about our different writing methods. She’s an outliner; I wing it.

Tis most excellent fun talking writing with her precisely because we could not be more different. So different that we frequently wind up talking at cross purposes. Last time we had this discussion we got hung up on the phrase “first draft”. Turns out that what she means by “first draft” is not what I mean.

Because Diana outlines she figures out much of the novel before she begins writing. I figure things out as I write the first draft. Thus my first drafts—zero drafts really—are frequently messy conversation spines. A large part of what I do when I rewrite my first draft is make it coherent. Describe where the conversations are taking place, illuminate thought processes—flesh the skeleton out.

Diana’s already figured out most of that stuff before she types a word. She has a clear vision of her book before she starts writing. I have only the haziest of notions, which changes as I write. I had no idea when I started writing How To Ditch Your Fairy that a large part of would take place at a sports high school in an alternative universe in the city of New Avalon. I found all of that out as I wrote.

Diana’s “first draft” is much closer to the final book because she wasn’t figuring stuff out as she went along; my “first draft” is a mess. So when she says she doesn’t like to change her first draft too much I think she’s insane. Because I keep forgetting that her first draft is not a broken mess like mine.

On occasion I am made to write an outline or a proposal by my agent or editor. I hate writing them more than anything in the whole world. I would much rather write the book than a description of it. The reason for this is that I don’t know what the book will be until I write it. Writing a description of the book before writing it is pretty much impossible for me.

Diana, on the other hand, loves proposals, outlines and the like. They make her excited about writing the book. Whereas I see them as something that gets in the way of writing a book. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy before I wrote it on the basis of a proposal, which consisted of the first three chapters, an outline, and short descriptions of the world. It was some of the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Writing the first three chapters was easy. Writing the rest of the proposal was nightmarish. The only way I could do it was to tell myself that the outline was an advertisement for the book, not a description of the book.

I never looked at it again. It did its job of selling the book; I did mine of writing it. Never did the twain meet.

I’m not exactly sure what Diana’s planning and outlining looks like, though she has posted pictures of her plot board. It seems crazy detailed. I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing that. Though sometimes I make notes before I start writing.

My notes for the Liar book start on the 24th of February 2005. I wrote seven short notes—jotting down ideas and a few lines—before I started writing in earnest at the beginning of this year. Those notes amount to a few hundred words (to put that in perspective this post is more than 900). That was my planning. Except that the first time I read those notes again was for writing this post. The point for me is not the notes, but the act of writing them. I remember because I wrote them down, which means I don’t have to look at them again.

It’s not until I have a completed first draft that I get serious about planning. In my pre-Scrivener days that’s when I’d start using a spreadsheet to map out the structure of the book and see where and how it was broken. With Scrivener the structure is plain to see—on the cork board—-making the spreadsheet redundant.

So my outlining and planning stage comes after writing the book. Diana’s comes before. Which makes me wonder if our novel-writing methods are actually that different. What she works out in her head, or on paper, or plot board before beginning the actual writing; I do during the writing. I nail down the structure once I have a draft. Whereas Diana does it before she begins the draft.

All the same things are happening just in a different order.

Maybe winging it and outlining are identical methods put into practice in a different order? Maybe all novelists write in the exact same way but merely change the order? Maybe we are all the same?! Me and Diana and Jean Rhys and Vladimir Nabokov, all identical!

Or maybe not.

Heh hem.

Either way my method is the best method. I’ll get back to applying it to my latest novel now.



  1. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I, for one, am exactly like Nabokov. 😉 Great post!

    Just to clarify, the plot board is a revising tool. I do it AFTER I’ve written the book. It’s not so very different from the Scrivener corkboard. It’s just a way that I can see if I’ve dropped any plot threads during the actual writing.

    I don’t know if I’ve got a clear idea of the *entire* book, but I do have “tent pole” scenes and the idea of vague connective tissue. things do change in the actual writing though. For example, my synopsis for the second you-know-what-with-the-horn book is 6000 words long. the book is projected to be ~100k. Maybe a third of the synop is devoted to discrete scenes, “set pieces” that I know will be in the book. The rest is kind of overview, connective tissue, and “and then some really cool stuff happens, the details of which I will work out later” and I’m not really sure how that works out until I get into the fray.

  2. Mark on #

    Great post! I think the SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) method results in more innovation as you let your muse direct you to things that never would have occurred in careful plotting. However, too many budding writers look at the large amount of up-front work of plotting and decide they are SOTP’ers with a resultant mess of linear stories, sparse subplots, etc.

    NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for this kind of thing. My first year of it I went totally SOTP, starting with a a hero and opening scene and just invented as I went. it was the most exhilarating writing of my life but the result was dreadful. The second year I wanted to keep the potential of free-form plot invention so I plotted out only the big picture and tried to leave the rest up to my subconscious – it was pretty disastrous as the outline restricted me but didn’t give enough to work on. The last year I went like Diana and plotted it all out. The book ended up being much more professional and readable, so I guess I am a plotter – but I do miss the heady wild-west days of SOTP.

  3. Carrie Ryan on #

    I’m in your camp Justine — I have NO idea what the book is about until I write it. I like your idea that the writing of the first draft is just building the story on paper rather than in your head!

    I think the sweetest news I ever heard was that my editor wasn’t going to require an outline or a synopsis for my unwritten but contracted books. My fingers are crossed this keeps up.

    Now I just need to get back to revising that draft on paper. Hmmm, there must be a better word than revising.

  4. Gabrielle on #

    I never used to outline; I never used to finish books. I think I personally need an outline to push me forward, since writing isn’t the source of my survival or anything. Knowing what happens next pushes me to get there and actually makes me look forward to it.

  5. Nicholas Waller on #

    There was an interesting Screenwipe from Charlie Brooker (writer of the “zombietastic” Dead Set) on the BBC last week in which he interviewed various TV writers (notes here) about how they went about writing – Russell T Davies from Doctor Who, the writers of Peep Show, the writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd and more.

    One part was about all this – plan vs wing – and one writer says he starts with a blank piece of paper: “With a show like Hustle I just wrote and got to page 55 and now I have 10 pages to explain in flashback how they get out of it. And I swear to you at that stage I have no idea.” Russell Davies says “I have an idea in my head, although not in any real order and you slalom your way through it.”

    But another chap says he is a bit of a structuralist and has to have a plan, which “may not be any more than a 1-4 page outline or even a page of bullet points. But there has to be something so when I get stuck and start hyperventilating, I can look at the plan and say ok this comes next, keep writing, keep writing.”

    So they are all the same but different.

    Part 1 on YouTube here, at least at the moment. Normally Screenwipe is us watching Brooker on the telly watching another telly and criticising what’s on it, which accounts for some of the comments. Some of these writers are comedy writers and the commenters also seem to be annoyed that they are not rib-ticklingly hilarious while being interviewed about their working practices.

  6. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    I outline, but this is because otherwise, in the midst of fevered writing, I have a Brilliant Idea. This usually involves adding ninjas, or ponies, or ninja ponies.

    I do not enjoy outlining, though, and it’s hard for me, so I’d say I’m a you-kind-of-writer driven to Diana’s side by the sad ninja pony addiction.

  7. Lizabelle on #

    At the moment, I write by the seat of my pants, but this also means that I lose all confidence in what I’m writing approximately half-way through, making it very difficult to get anything finished. So thanks for this post, because it’s so reassuring to know that other people do this and push on through!

  8. Justine on #

    Mark: Muse? Ewww. We don’t hold with muses around here.

    Carrie: I have bad news for you. Even though you don’t have to outline for your editor doesn’t mean you won’t wind up having to write one for your agent to use to sell to foreign markets etc. Sad but true.

    Sarah: I think you NEED to add ninja ponies. Immediately.

    Lizabelle: Most of the writers I know experience that whether they outline or not. Hmmm, I am full of bad news this morning.

  9. Zyanas on #

    I must have an outline. It is not a matter of comfort, it is a matter of survival. Not even I can make sense of my own first draft without an outline. This is largely do to the fact that I don’t tend to think in a chronological or linear manner. If I tried seat-of-my-pants, I’d wind up with scene forty seven occurring suddenly in the middle of a sentence that belongs to scene one, placed directly across from scene seven. So I outline like mad, and re-arrange, and get together a list of all the events that need to happen to get from point A to point B to point C to point D in order.
    Then I write about point C and then point A, and then point D and point B in unison. When I’ve checked off every scene on my list, rearrange my scenes according to my guideline, and add in the connective tissue. That’s draft one for me.
    That said, while writing I do make changes to the outline where I find them necessary. I find changes to the outline necessary a lot. The story I outlined and the story I wrote are often totally different stories by the time draft one is finished.

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