Outlining can be a tricky thing. Some writers swear by nice, well-developed outlines that are essentially the entire narrative minus all the fluff and dialogue. Others are chaotic beings, regarding the outline as an entity existing solely to stifle creative flow. And, of course, all those in between. And maybe even further outside those two points.
Who is correct? No one and everyone, of course. Like so much in creative writing, there’s no correct way to do things, really. However! Outlining is one thing I believe all newer or inexperienced writers should at least make an effort on.
I value outlines. I really do. They give guidance, direction, and a purpose to my writing. If I have a solid idea of what I want to do with the plot or scene, it’s much, much easier for me to write it out. Conversely, if I’m ambling along trying to make it up as I go, suddenly writing becomes an intimidating beast and I struggle to achieve even a few hundred words in an hour—none of which feel good.
Yet here I am, doing just that sort of thing in my latest work. Stumbling through, lamenting how every word I put down is somehow worse than the last. Complaining about how the plot is going nowhere. Horrified because I completely forgot a character existed for several chapters they should have been a part of.
I suspect there are more writers than just me who wind up doing this. So what’s the problem?
After some self-reflection, I believe my problem is three-fold: First, there’s that chaotic, creative side of me that wants to do whatever. “Outline wants to go this way?” It says, “Fuck that, we’re going over here instead!” Thus ruining not only just that particular piece of the outline, but probably diverging heavily enough where the rest of the thing requires heavy revision, if not being made useless outright.
This leads into the second issue where all that work I’ve put into the outline has been made invalid. So, I have to choose between either allowing my creative monster to do as it wishes or sticking to the cold, logical outline. Which is more likely to be a better read?
The last issue is that I don’t consider words in an outline to be words written for the day. After all, nothing you put in that outline is going to appear in the finished product, right? So that week spent on the outline has been wasted. Especially when, after a chapter and a half, what I’m writing no longer resembles the outline at all.
It’s easy to see why I, maybe we, treat outlines so poorly, even if we understand their value on a logical, overarching level.
So, what can I do to fix this? The obvious answer, of course, is follow the damned outline.
“But what if it’s not any good?”
Well, myself, that’s what editing is for, isn’t it?
“But all that work you’re wasting?”
You know what, I don’t have a good answer for that one. Best I can come up with is, well, it’s better than having to scrap absolute heaps in editing and rewriting because nothing makes a lick of sense, even if it does have better emotive value. Right? I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but Vagabonds took me a very long time to write, mainly because I wound up completely trashing two previous attempts at writing it. Everything was just… A strong outline would probably have revealed the serious flaws in the narrative well ahead of time had I done it properly. Would’ve been nice to have all that time and effort spent writing 120k words back. Or the almost 40k I trimmed from the published version of the novel. Which, funnily enough, could still use some significant editing.
So take that, efficiency-mind.
Granted, I’ll accept (begrudgingly) some people can turn out good work by the seat of their pants. Maybe these folks have struck some dark bargain. Maybe they just have a good memory. Me? I tend to forget what happened in chapter 5 by the time I’m writing chapter 10. Not a good thing.
“But what if I have a better idea while writing the prose?”
Then we amend the outline. Or, since we’re still using our lovely outline, we can still recycle or salvage a good part of it. Probably.
And we could come up with excuses forever if we really want.
Ultimately, it’s about sticking with something, isn’t it? Maybe the reason I’m so bad with outlines is because I keep neglecting them and don’t build the skills and techniques needed for effective outlines.
Food for thought, isn’t it, for all of my reader to consider.