Learning How To Outline

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I’m not an outliner. I use my first drafts–zero drafts–to figure out characters, plot, setting etc.

But lately that method has not been working for me. My chronic illness caused me to lose my executive function for months. I could not make decisions. Novels are nothing but decisions.

My executive function returned as I learned to manage being sick, but I’m still not as sharp as I was. The parts of novel writing I once found relatively easy, I now struggle with, and the parts that were once hard? Well, you can imagine. This illness has changed my brain.

On top of that I now tire quickly. Writing leaves me exhausted. Turns out that outlining requires fewer spoons than exploratory drafting. Or maybe it’s just that doing something in a different way is energising?

I’m not an outliner. I’ve tried to outline before. Many times. And failed. Outlining felt like scratching at nerve endings. We hates it.

But this time instead of giving up in annoyance after a day or two of struggle, I pushed through to understand what it is about outlining I find so difficult. Why does it set my teeth on edge? Why does it make me shouty? Why do I hate it?

I finally figured it out.

All my novels start with the characters. Even Liar. Although I had the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a pathological/compulsive liar first. I was unable to start writing it until I knew who that liar was. Micah emerged strongly as I drafted. Once I knew her the plot started happening.

Characters first; plot later.

If I don’t know who my characters are, how do I know what they’re capable of? How can I know what kind of plot they’ll generate?


I stopped attempting to outline. I’d already charted the novel’s opening and first few scenes so I started writing them. I wrote chapter after chapter, getting to know my two pov characters, and the people in their lives, which started to generate story, and allowed me to get back to the outlining.

When I can’t go any further with the outline I go back to drafting until I know enough to continue.

I know the end of this novel.

I’ve never known the end of any of my novels before I wrote them. It’s very strange. I worry that I’ve spoiled myself, that I won’t want to actually write it. But every time I go back to drafting after being stuck, it’s so much fun! I love learning more about these characters and what they want and why they kill. The outline is bare bones. It’s not heart or soul.

I don’t have a full outline yet–my illness makes me so very slow–but I have more of an outline than I’ve ever had. It’s wild. Did I mention that I know how this book ends? I know what happens for the first third.

My old reason for not outlining was that standard one: if I know what happens and write it all out then why would I write the whole novel? I’d bore myself to tears.

It’s not true, though.

Even this detailed outline I’m constructing is not like writing the novel. There’s an ocean between: She switches seats on the plane to allow a separated couple to sit together and finds herself next to a stylish Grace Kelly type, looking all patrician and better than you and the actual descriptive passage detailing that event, which reveals her thoughts, so the reader knows and understands why she hates WASPy blondes and why she wants to get drunk and why she fantasises about committing murder.

Outlines and novels are not the same genre. Outlines are barely writing at all. They’re more like notes, than novel writing. It’s the to-do list, not that which is done. It’s the incomplete recipe, not the actual meal. Outlines are mere potential. Novels are life.

It might be that I’ll never just wing it again. That I’ll be all outlines all the time. It feels very strange. But whatever is necessary for me to write novels again.

I’m a novelist. Writing novels has been central to my identity for decades now. It has been agony not being able to write. I thought I had lost myself. Being able to write novels again is everything to me. No matter how slow. No matter how different my methods are. The writing is the thing.


    • Justine on #

      Did you always outline?

      • Simmone Howell on #

        I always try to but the only super successfully outlined book was Everything Beautiful (as a result it only took 8 months) I used a plot guide. Since then I’m very hit and mess. I start to outline but don’t push through. Plot has always been secondary ….but with Girl Defective and the one I’m working on now, bc they are crime-y I need to be a bit more strategic – I know the end and it’s a nice feeling to b working towards. For Take Three Girls with Cath and Fiona we did the whole outlining on the whiteboard thing and I found it quite liberating, but hard to duplicate on my own. I now think white board/big paper/standing up to think is the way to go.

        • Justine on #

          Yes, my only outlined book is Team Human, which I wrote with Sarah Rees Brennan. Outlining with someone else was fun. Outlining on my own? Way less so.

          I’m enjoying the challenge, however. Especially after almost a full year when I literally couldn’t wrote because I had no executive function. Every sentence feels like victory.

  1. racheloddment on #

    I also have never been an outliner. Every time I’ve tried, the story feels so… cardboard, and I can’t get past it. You’ve definitely hit on why: I too write characters first, plot last. Characters are why I read books too. I can put up with a lot of nonsensical plot if I love the characters. Based on past exchanges we’ve had via Twitter, I think our writing process is very similar, so thank you for this new perspective on outlining. I’m really glad this has been working for you so far!

    • Justine on #

      Thank you! Yes, characters are everything.

      Fingers crossed this new method continues to work. If nothing else it’s given me a new perspective on novel writing.

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