My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mailbox: Should I Outline My Book?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  And reword the greatest author in the English language to write a question to a sixteenth rate blog at your own peril.]    

Mark asks:

To outline or not to outline, that is the question.  Whether tis nobler in the plot to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous spontaneity.  Or to take arms against a sea of characters.  And by opposing, end them.  I really like to outline what I'm going to write, and a lot of writers in my group swear by it.  But I've noticed that many writers who I love seem to advise against it.  

Help me Obi-Chris Kenobi.  You're my only hope.  By which I mean, I might actually get an answer from writing to you, and Cory Doctorow just won't get back to me!

My reply:

Maybe you should leave the jokes to me, Mark.

Around here, the Shakespeare quips more along the line of taking Sonnet 23 to see The Book of Mormon while Unsupportive Girlfriend and I order a pizza and watch The West Wing reruns on Netflix. That or I make some crude references to the beast with three backs (See what I did there?) in an effort to seem "edgy."

I do like the Star Wars reference though.  I can probably work with that....

So my first disclaimer in answering something like this is always to do what works. Always. Whenever we get into a "right way to write" kind of question, I'm probably not going to end up taking a side so much as trying to explain the sides because that shit is like biting on tinfoil to me. Elitist assholish tinfoil.

Actually, that's not true. My really really first disclaimer should be that this is about fiction. If you are doing expository writing, outlining is one of the single most useful techniques you can use to organize your thoughts. If you want to turn in the worst abortion of an essay you possibly could, don't outline it at all (even mentally) before you sit down to write it. In fact, the success of outlining in the kind of writing most people are doing for the first 12-16 years of their writing career may be one of the reasons it is so popular when those people shift to fiction.

But my SECOND disclaimer is that you should always do what works for you. If outlining works for you, fuck everyone else right in the ear. Hard. Like grudge sex. Ear grudge sex. And if it brings you joy and contentment to outline, that's all that really matters.

That said, let me see if I can untangle this raging debate that threatens to tear our peaceful community asunder and shed some light on why so many established authors eschew outlining, and so many would-be writers swear by it so fucking hard.  (And why a few [but not many] of the verses are viced?)

Is tossing out your outline the one thing that is holding you back from greatness? Money? Fame? Groupies? Groupie threesomes? Groupie foursomes? Groupie five--


As usual, my advice in issues like this isn't to just pony up my personal opinion, say that everyone else is a mountain of mentally deficient pimple squeezings, remind you to tip your cocktail waitress, and then drop the microphone and spread my arms triumphantly as the feedback blows out everyone's eardrums.

Rather, I try to listen to who is saying what and why.

You are right to notice that many authors don't outline--at least not very much. Andre Dubois III says it's the worst thing you can do. Harlin says writing should be driving in the fog (I wonder if he knew about Mapquest). Stephen King discourages it. Murakami doesn't even know what the fuck is going to happen and he's probably going to win a Nobel prize for literature. This is because modern lit tends to be more focused on character. I don't just mean the literature genre either. Even in science fiction, westerns and mysteries, there is much more attention paid to the character than there has been. (Back in the day, the mystery was the story--now you need an interesting detective like Monk or House to solve it.) The characters should be driving the plot, and if you have already decided what is going to happen, very often it can feel like railroading to put your characters into that position. If your horror heroine tells you there's no fucking way she's going to check and see what that noise was, it is difficult to push her to do so, and if you've ever thought the characters were being really foolish in a horror movie, this is exactly what I'm talking about.  If you already know what everyone is going to do, there's no character development. Your characters are just puppets in your Kabuki Theater. Modern readers don't like that.

The Greeks loved it! Modern readers...not so much.

However, certain KINDS of writing practically require outlining. Any kind of television screenwriting will need to be tightly scripted to fit into a time slot. Thrillers, complex plots, and mysteries are often sludgy dribble with deus ex machina endings that give new meaning to "epically stupid" if they aren't outlined well before being written. John Grisham spends more time outlining than writing  (~cough~ it shows ~cough~).  Robert Ludlum does hundred page outlines or more. But these writers are also writing the sorts of things that need to be very tightly plotted.

And I will warn you up front, this type of writing is seen as "less literary" precisely because it does favor plot over character. So don't come crying to Uncle Chris that you weren't informed how your Legal Spy Thriller with the cardboard character who you might as well have described as "The role of this guy will be played by Tom Cruise," is not helping your bid for Nobel laureate.

Just sayin....

The problem is, a lot of outlining tends to come from an impetus not to write.

Wait. Hang on. Put down that pitchfork. Don't light that torch.

Before everyone gets REALLY pissed, let me qualify that.  I don't think everyone who outlines is doing it in order to avoid writing.

Those people exist, certainly. Let's not play happy make believe world where talking cat people have rainbow weapons and fight for the rights of kids to use their imagination. People who would rather outline than write are not exactly tough to find. Walk into any coffe shop in the continental U.S. and you can probably find no less than three of them sitting around outlining because they're not "quite ready" to start writing. The problem is, they're never quite ready. They don't ever get around to actually writing.  In the end they have these incredibly intricate outlines, but no actual words on a page. Oh, and they have coffee.

Believe me when I tell you that John Grisham doesn't have this problem. When he's done outlining, he writes a fucking book.

But finding poseurs is easy-peasy-hope-you're-sleazy. They sit around the gym talking arguing about whether it's better to do cardio or weights first but never get around to working up a sweat. They sit around drama departments and argue about method acting vs natural acting but never end up going to auditions. And they sit around art stores and argue about the merits and flaws of oils vs acrylics but never seem to actually do much painting. So what happens if we forget about these folk? What about well-intentioned writers who outline?

Again, do what works, but let me make sure I tell you about this other pitfall before I leave you to your own devices....

If I had to pick one way, Mark, in which successful, accomplished writers differ from dreamers it would be this: they respect the process. 

Accomplished writers know they have to work on a consistent routine--probably daily. They know it's going to take a lot of work instead of being genius right away. They know the first draft of anything is shit. They know they're going to rewrite. They know that things are going to get messy. They know they might take out scenes, even characters. They know there's going to be a moment where they realize that their entire first half isn't working and that they're going to have to have a good cry and redo the whole damned thing. They know that what they end up with is not going to look like what they started out to create. They know making mistakes is part of the process, and art is knowing which ones to keep. They know that if we could just sit down and write a good book, they wouldn't be so impressive.

Young writers hear stuff like this and they think: "Not MY story." They don't like these ideas. They don't want something to change from their initial vision. They don't want to have to take out a whole character or scene. What they want to do is get it right on the first shot.

Outlining can be a little bit like the opposite of respecting the process. It can be--I'm not saying it always is, but it can be--a way in which a writer refuses to give up that control. It works against the process. It's like deciding ahead of time that the process won't count for this story because this story is going to go exactly how the writer wants. Many outliners seem to hope that with enough preparation, the first draft won't be shit--it will be exactly right.  If you just think about it enough, it will all come into place. That's not how art works.

You have to give up control.

Then again, for some people outlining is just their "zeroth" draft.  That's the way they write with broad brush strokes first. As long as they're willing to break out of the mold of what they have done and change things, there's nothing really wrong with it. As long as an outline isn't exerting control, it may not be so detrimental.

My last point--take a look at this great bit from Flavorwire where they reveal the outlines of several famous authors.  Obviously some authors outline or this would be a pretty fucking stupid article, right?


However, notice something about these outlines: with a couple of exceptions, notice how small they are. Most of these are one page--a one page outline for a whole book. Notice how what is being outlined are things like timelines and a handful of plot bombs, not the entire arc of every character or what they will do in reaction to those plot bombs. So if you're plotting a story with lots of plot, you might need an extensive outline, but if your characters are going to drive the plot, you may want to meet them and see what they want to do before you railroad them.

Order of the Phoenix is an 870 page book that is largely character based; Rowling used a single sheet of notebook paper to outline it. A single sheet for 870 pages to outline the best selling novel of all time. Let that sink in.

There are some pretty solid reasons to outline and some pretty solid reasons not to. If your characters feel two dimensional, if you are trying to write character based fiction, or if you are outlining to avoid the mess that will become your draft, you should toss the outline and see what happens. If your stories wander off their main plot, you are writing tight plot based fiction (like thrillers or mysteries), or you find that even after a shockingly brutal bout of self-honesty you can say that you are not using outlining as a way to not write, but you still enjoy outlining, then you should probably be outlining.  To the best of my knowledge, you are no more or less likely to form the beast with three groupie backs if you choose one or the other.

And that's all that really matters. Well, that and all the meaningful artsy soul enrichment stuff.

I hate to end without a definitive answer, but you don't really get that Peter North caliber money shot unless you ask questions like: "Should I read?" or "Is it good to write every day?"

Pay attention to why you like outlining. You should consider the kind of writing that you are doing and that you want to be doing. (You PERSONALLY, Mark, may want to consider the fact that the writers you love tend to avoid outlining.) Most importantly, you should check yourself to make sure outlining is not something you're doing instead of writing, and then you should do what works for you.

Oh, and then you should kick anyone in the nuts and/or punch them in the tit if they try to tell you that you're doing it wrong. Cause fuck them, that's why.

Personally I don't outline, but I also have a very good memory for the general landscape of a few plot points and the sheer enjoyment of finding out how my characters are going to handle themselves beyond that.  I write as much to discover what is going to happen and delight myself as anything else.  In a way I'm reading my own work.  Some of my most hackneyed moments have come from trying to force my characters to do something they didn't want to do to get the plot to do what I wanted.

Sorry to be all Obi Chris Kenobi on you, Mark, but you're going to find that many of the outlines we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Also, do me a solid (get it?) and hook me up with a translucent glowing blue cutie, will ya?
Preferably two.


  1. Hunh. I never thought about this before, but your post calls my attention to something about my outlines: I don't outline plot.

    I create high-level outlines that look like clouds rather than that strict, linear format that grade school teachers taught me. The clouds are about the characters. The clouds help me sort out what might make them change and how those changes might manifest themselves. These bits about changes and transitions eventually form plots.

    I use mind mapping software when I create these clouds digitally, but I usually like to use post-it notes that I stick to notebook paper. As I examine my outline, I often move the notes around.

    1. Interesting. I'm sort of having trouble picturing this--you might have to show me one day. I like post its too.

  2. I outline approximately the same way I game prep - these big events will happen (that's what's outlined), and how will the players/characters react (that's the story)?

  3. I've always done the "big plot points and ideas" sort of outline. Beyond that I mostly drove through the fog to try and get to the add, and added more to the idea document as I went along. I tried a really formal outline, snowflake thing, a while ago, and wasn't feeling it.

    I'm trying something a little new on my latest WIP. Not a pre-written outline, but a "look one chapter ahead" series of bullet points. I write a chapter, and as I start it I give a brief (5 or 7 or whatever number of bullet points floats my boat) outline of the next chapter to follow. That gives me some idea where I think things are going without boxing me into a strict path. And it's easier to break out of an outline if it's only one chapter ahead. Some of that stuff will still probably work, some won't, and then I repeat the process when I get there.

    Not sure how well it will survive through the first draft, but 25,000 words in, it feels like a decent way of doing it. But yeah, it always boils down to "do what works best for you."

  4. I outline... but... I do it áfter writing the first draft. That first draft is indeed driving through the fog. I have no idea where I'm going, who my characters are, and aside from an end goal for the story, no idea how to get there. The act of writing will show me all that.
    But after that first draft, I start outlining. I find the start and the end, find the key point that are already in the story, and those that should be. I create tons of mind maps (my outlining method): for the plot, the characters, the timeline.
    Outlining at that stage is mapping out the more definite image for me to carve out of the gathered block of stone that is the first draft.
    In the next drafts I may still deviate from the outline. My characters usually are mean little anarchists who don't do what I want them to do, but at least this time around, I know what should have happened.