Writing Journal Y3 Day 322


I think there’s a disconnect in my brain when it comes to outlining.  The one time I truly did it (because I was forced to), I did find it helpful in getting the story written.  But, I also changed the outline completely several times because, as I was writing, I found the story and characters taking me in different directions.

Screen shot 2013-11-09 at 6.12.11 PMFor me, I think there has to be a hybrid approach moving forward – part outliner, part pantser.  The pantser in me (or ‘discovery writer’, if you prefer) will start a billion stories and finish, maybe, 1% – which isn’t good.  I also don’t like being boxed in by an outline.  There’s a part of my brain that feels like – once it’s been written down, you are tied down.  I know that isn’t true, but it’s a wall I’m creating for myself, which is probably why I avoid outlining in the first place.  Having said that, I want to write as full a concept of the story as I can manage before I start writing.  Some people might say, “Yes, that’s a great idea, dumbass – why haven’t you been doing that all along?”  Well, in the past, I get an idea and I just sit down and write.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s worked okay for me.  I need to ramp it up a little, though, if I want to move forward.

So, I have to write down a couple of important things:

  • What is the story about?
  • How does it end?

I know that sounds stupid-simple.  But it’s not – not for me.  I get distracted by the idea.  An idea popped into my head one night – all about ‘consumption’, a word used to describe a sickness in the American Old West – and started writing immediately.  I had no idea where the story was going, but I had to write it.  That’s how the ideas hit me and take over my brain.  Luckily, I completed Consumption, but not all the story ideas have such happy endings.

With those two things listed above in place, I can move forward and let the characters take me where they will on that path.  Without them, I end up with a writing folder full of half-finished ideas.

And that isn’t gonna get me where I want to go.


  • Dan Posted November 18, 2013 4:01 pm

    I’ve heard it said that following an outline will constrain you and make your work boring and/or unrealistic. You certainly don’t want it to appear that your characters did stupid, counterintuitive things just to get into an interesting predicament the author designed. It would look fake. Still, I’ve always thought that without a general idea of where the story is going, it is hard for me to stay interested and focused. Also, I tend to build outlines as I go anyway without meaning to. I don’t know what works better. My only published book is non-fiction, and in the fiction I’m struggling through now, I am having a problem making things realistic and finding that I’ve changed the outline several times. I’m also having a problem with going back and inserting clues to how things will turn out, and clues that the characters will later reference, suddenly seeing in hidsight how it all fits together. The problem is that I can’t always find a place to insert them that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the dialogue/action. They look planted.

    • Patrick Hester Posted November 18, 2013 8:06 pm

      Hmmm. Planting stuff after you’ve already written it is tough. I had to do that. I think you have to be super-subtle with it.

  • J.T. Evans Posted November 18, 2013 8:27 pm

    I outline. I outline like a MF’er. I may plug in some dialogue or action or description into my outline if it comes to me in the spur of the moment while outlining, but I save my prose until I know the Important Plot Points. This helps me avoid the “swampy middle” and when I start to get bogged down, I can find a future event in the outline that will inspire me to continue writing until I reach the next “cool part”… or I’ll shorten the current scene/chapter/setting and get to the “cool part” to avoid swamping down the reader as well. I have to write linearly. I can’t write out of order, and an outline helps me keep things in order.

    HOWEVER, I do NOT treat my outline as Holy Text That Shall Not Be Deviated From.

    If I fall away from my outline while writing a particular section of prose, I’ll keep writing until I glance at my outline and realize that I’m off the beaten path. Then I’ll consider what I just wrote vs. what I had planned on writing. I’ll go with whichever piece of creation (outline or prose) I feel works best.

    Sometimes I have to throw away words to backtrack and get on the path I’d planned.

    Sometimes I adjust my outline moving forward and just make the best of it.

    I once killed a character in a novel, and had some fairly heavy plot points still tied to him in later chapters. Oops? Nah. His death was a good one. It just meant that I had to go back to my outline and shuffle some things around. Many of his plot points were dropped entirely and replaced with plot points for the characters affected by his death.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I plan my plot points and some scant activities to get between the plot points. However, I discover the precise details of what the characters do as I write the prose.

    Try this on for size: Two people of the same gender, height and general weight will have an almost identical skeletal system (barring injury, etc.). However, the flesh packed on to each frame is what makes each of those people unique. Think of the outline as the skeleton that no one sees and the prose built on the outline as the outer layers that everyone knows and loves.

    Hope this helps!

  • pd workman Posted November 19, 2013 8:02 am

    I did not have any success in doing any kind of outlining or planning ahead until the last couple of years. If I even knew how a story was going to end, I lost interest in it and didn’t want to push through to make it happen. Several different things have happened that I think have led to being able to outline now (and I am getting better, I think, with each outline.)

    – I wrote two books where I knew the “twist” ahead of time, and knew how the story was going to end. That was a really big step for me. The characters were interesting and compelling enough that even though I knew where the story was going to go eventually, I was still excited enough about them to discover their stories along the way and complete the plot.

    – I have one book, one of my favorites, which I keep going back and adding more to. Not to the end, but backstory, inserting scenes, fleshing out the character and the story in more and more detail. Discovering that I could go back and enjoy adding more even after the story was finished, even after I new exactly how it ended, was a big plus. Ditto with rewriting and restructuring some older work. If I could enjoy rewriting even when I knew the ending, why couldn’t I enjoy the first draft when I knew the ending?

    – I started intentionally writing stuff out of order. Bored with what I was doing? Skip a scene or two and get ahead in the story, I could always go back in and backfill the scenes later. Not sure about the character’s motivation? Work on some backstory. Intrigued by something a character said? Same thing.

    So, I started outlining when working on NaNo or similar projects. If you’re going to write that fast, you should know where you’re going. (I usually do 100,000 words rather than 50,000, though.) My outlines tend not to be plotlines, exactly, more like a list of what facts need to be established, and things that need to happen at some point. I may have something like “establish feelings of abandonment”, rather than a particular incident that establishes it. The outlines are living, working outlines. Drag stuff around, move it somewhere else, add or delete as necessary… but it’s working for me!

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