Should You Write an Outline?

These next few weeks leading up to November will have lots of newbie scribblers looking for inspiration and writing advice.  Some authors kindly share their secrets to their success, and it’s always a good idea, and fascinating too, to read up on the different paths that led to famous writer’s successes, but not so much a good idea to stubbornly follow anyone else’s rules, without first finding out your own. They know the road to their success, but that won’t necessarily be the road to yours.  We all develop our own patterns and habits over time by writing the way we naturally do.  Certainly, try out various techniques, but at the end of the day, follow your own instinctive processes – write the way that makes you happy.  Find your own comfort zone – you’ll know when you’re there.

Outlines work for some authors, and they might go so far as to say that you can’t write a cohesive tale without one.  I sometimes do outline, but mostly I don’t.  I only have an outline for my science-fiction series, but it changes so constantly and dramatically as the characters show me what’s really going to happen, that I wonder if the time I spent creating it was a waste of time.  Looking at a couple of famous authors – Dean R Koonz never, ever outlines.  He says that he starts with two interesting characters and a brief premise, and that character development is never a separate task.  He says that for him, plotting resolves itself in the process of writing.  Me too.  He doesn’t write the whole book before editing though, and revises it pretty minutely as he goes along, so by the time he’s done, he’s pretty much done.  I don’t revise much as I go along, which works for me.  He’s also known for writing for twelve hours straight through, without eating lunch.  Owie!  Occasionally yes, but no way every day for me.  These things work for him, very well indeed, but they probably won’t work for everyone.

Stephen King also doesn’t outline.  In his book, On Writing, he says, “I often have an idea what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way.  On the contrary.  I want them to do things their way.”  I personally agree with him.  My writing comfort zone is typing the first sentence, and then seeing where my characters go.  I have written a few outlines, but for some reason they always end up being forgotten.  What works for me, or any other writer, doesn’t matter though, if you prefer knowing exactly where you want your story to go.  The best advice here is to outline if you want to, but if you don’t, then enjoy that crazy trip of allowing your story to happen to you.  Another quote from our dear Steve.  “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”  This is especially true.  Writing your stories comes from you.  It’s not a group activity with absolute written in stone rules.  Follow your own rules.

One final bit of Stephen King writing trivia.  He consistently writes ten pages a day (two thousand words) and will not allow himself to stop for the day until he has those words down unless there is a dire emergency.  This isn’t as hard as it seems once you get into the habit actually, and more is easy too when you find yourself on a fabulous roll.  Dean Wesley Smith suggests that an average word count of five and a half thousand words per day is doable, writing for eight hours a day every day for five days a week, and that he in fact knows writers who do this.  In this case I would imagine that an outline really would be essential.  He’s talking about writers of pulp fiction though, who strove to churn out their stories really quickly to support themselves.  I wouldn’t want to put myself through this sort of thing at all, so I follow my own pace, and my own rules.

I wouldn’t agonise too much about creating an in-depth outline, unless you particularly want to, for this year’s NaNoWriMo if you’re doing the challenge.  Have your general idea, plonk your characters down on the page, and let them show you the way.

To Outline or Not to Outline

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