Writers are divided into two camps: those who outline and those who blank-page. Outliners can’t imagine sitting in front of a blank screen and letting it rip; blank-pagers feel imprisoned by following an outline. Each style has its uses and pitfalls.
A positive in the outlining process includes thorough preparation before you sit down to write. You don’t waste any time when you sit down at the page. You have your notes and your outline, you know where you’ve been and where you’re going. You figured out the major plot points, your setting, your character arcs. You caught the places that needed research, you did the work, you have the notes and how you want to work what you learned into the story. Perhaps you even included a few snippets of dialogue as you worked out the piece. You know your characters intimately. You’ve already found the spots that are troublesome, the lapses in logic, and the holes. You’ve created the lines, and the actual writing is the filling-in process.
When you juggle multiple deadlines, the outline helps you make the best use of your time. You don’t sit and stare at a blank page; you read over the notes for the next section, sit down, and your fingers fly across the keyboard. You might only have a fifteen-minute chunk of time at that particular writing session, but you can knock out a whole scene.
If you’re working on several projects simultaneously, the tone of the outline helps you remember the voice of the book, and switching between projects doesn’t lead to a murky voice that dilutes all the projects. You already have a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The outline is almost a test drive for the project. Elizabeth George discusses her detailed outline process extensively in Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. It’s fascinating to see how she creates each of her books in such detail before she sits down to actually write them.
In addition, you have the basis for the logline, one paragraph summary, chapter-by-chapter outline, and synopsis that you will need for the submission process. Instead of starting from scratch when you’re ready to launch the submission process, you have the foundation. All you need to do is tweak to reflect the adjustments, changes, and discoveries made during the actual writing process.
Unfortunately, an outline can turn into a trap. Sometimes, your story will veer away from the original inspiration, either due to character development, or because as the novel grew, it grew away from the original concept. Far too many writers feel that they can’t deviate from their outline. It’s okay to deviate from the outline. It’s okay to toss it out completely, if that’s what serves the story. That’s why you have revisions: to pull it together or cut it up further.
Have the best book you can write complete before you start the query process.
Of course, newbie writers often toss off a synopsis and start querying before they’ve written the book, mistakenly believing that, by the time they get a bite on the query, the book will be complete. I’ve watched dozens of writers miss opportunities because they queried too early. Until you have a solid publishing track record, it is highly unlikely that you will sell a novel on the basis of your outline, without close ties to someone in publishing. And when you get a bite on your query, you need to be ready to send the requested material immediately. If you make excuses and ask for more time, you show the agent or editor you are not a professional and not reliable.
Have the best book you can write complete before you start the query process. Sending the private, personal writer’s outline into the world before the book is complete has led far too many promising writers down the path to a reputation as “amateur” and “unreliable.”
An outline is a guideline, not a prison.
Another pitfall is to spend so much time on the outline you lose interest in the book before you start writing it. Too much pre-writing takes the joy out of writing. Going further into that trap, some writers use the outline as an excuse not to begin writing the actual novel. They keep going back to tweak the outline, saying the book isn’t “ready” to be written. In most cases, it will never be ready and always remain in outline form.
An outline is a guideline, not a prison. It’s a foundation, a jumping off point, a place to store your inspirations on the days when they come so fast and furiously you can’t possibly fully explore them, but you don’t want to lose them. You can avoid the traps and make use of the positives if you use a little common sense.
One of the joys of the blank-page approach is the sense of discovery. You sit down every day and have no idea what happens next. The first draft is all about revelation, because you don’t have any preconceived notions. You can take any tangent and follow any potential plot point or secondary character that interests you. There are no boundaries. It’s about creation in the moment.
However, that creation can stop on a dime. There are days when you will face a blank page for hours on end and nothing happens. Some days, even the words “and” and “the” are impossible to put on the page. Walking away from your work, finding something completely different, often helps. Or doing a repetitive, meditative, trance-inducing activity such as taking a walk or exercising will help get the creative juices flowing.
“Blank-page novels often require more substantial cuts, including entire subplots, groups of characters, and other arcs...”
What is created from the blank-page often requires more revision and more drafts. Because everything is the process of discovery, there will be inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, physical description, and, sometimes, even character names will change without the writer realizing it. Or characters will wander in whose names are too similar to already established characters, thereby confusing your future readers. You can catch inconsistencies in revisions, but it may take several more rounds of revisions to catch everything. I find taking notes on characters (especially physical descriptions) and settings as I write is helpful on the projects that begin as blank pages.
Blank-page novels often require more substantial cuts, including entire subplots, groups of characters, and other arcs because, once you’re ready for the finished novel, you find you’ve created too many tangents. Again, this is something that can be turned into a positive: What was initially a single novel could turn into a series or a group of loosely linked novels. However, they will require more structuring, and it’s likely you will have to sit down and (yes, oh horrors) outline your vision for the group of novels in order to structure each one to its fullest potential.
If you have to put aside the project due to other priorities, chances are that without an outline or some kind of notes on it, you’ll forget where you were and where you planned to go during the course of the book. This can be frustrating, or it can open new possibilities for creativity, depending upon how you approach it. There will be a sense of loss, grief, and a worry that your new ideas will never be quite as unique as those with which you started. That mixes in with excitement about the new possibilities. In other words, the blank-page approach tends to be more emotional and exhausting.
“...every project is unique, and needs to develop its own unique rhythm.”
The longer I write and the more I publish, the more I find myself moving toward loose outlines and mixing it with the blank-page approach. Once you are a regularly contracted and published writer, you no longer have the luxury of writer’s block. You have to be able to sit down and create within your contracted schedule. If you indulge yourself in writer’s block, the publisher will find a thousand other writers just as talented as you are who are capable of sticking to a schedule and can easily replace you. You have to be able to call up the Muse at will.
Remember that every project has its individual process. Each time you sit down at the page, you have to somewhat re-invent the wheel. Depending upon your time constraints, you will have to adjust, streamline, and truncate your process to get the work done within the assigned time frame. But every project is unique, and needs to develop its own unique rhythm. By remaining flexible in your process and sensitive to an individual project’s unique needs, you end up being more creative and have more freedom in your writing than if you locked yourself into only one type of process or another. Everything you write, even work that never sees the light of a publishing contract, should teach you something that you can apply to your next project. You can choose not to have the blank-page work in conflict with the outline. In the ideal writing world, they work together.
Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Her novella HEX BREAKER was released by FireDrakes Weyr in August 2008. She writes “The Literary Athlete” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, and regularly covers sports for FEMMEFAN. Her blog on the writing life is Ink in My Coffee (https://devonellingtonwork.com) and her main website is www.devonellingtonwork.com.