Planning To Outline Your Novel? Don’t

Why less planning could mean more for your next story.

It seems an essential question to aspiring writers, who are eager to mimic the habits and behaviors of those they admire. Unfortunately, just like what our favorite writers eat for breakfast, whether they write before or after they shower, and whether they use pencils of word processors, just because a method of book preparation works for one writer, it won’t necessarily work for another.

You will hear writers tell you they never start until they have ten scenes plotted on a timeline and character sketches for all their primary characters. You’ll also encounter writers who tell you they never intend to start a new novel, the story just winds its way there. There are lots of degrees of plotting, planning and pre-writing, and for the newer novelist, extensive outlining can be helpful. There is nothing more comforting than having a road map when the going gets tough.

But for writers striving to create something unique and surprising, the kind of work that will grab the attention of agents and editors, the thorough plotting and planning can be a matter of life and death. By that, I mean that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival.

It may fly in the face of your tried and true approach, but I’m going to ask you to consider a different tack: Don’t plan. Write.

It sounds pretty amateur, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t walk into a business meeting without an agenda, or build a house without blueprints.

But I just might mold some clay into a bowl without envisioning the end result. I might sketch a woman I have a vague sense of, without thinking about her features.

Your writing isn’t a house or a business meeting. It feels like work. It uses the same skills you use to email your boss. But your writing is art, and it doesn’t need a prescription to succeed.

When writers engage in extensive pre-writing in the form of outlines and character sketches, we change the job of the writing we’re preparing to do. All of a sudden our role becomes that of the translator; we sit down each day to turn our outline into prose, to tell the story we already know, to introduce the reader to the character we have thoroughly sketched.

When you head into a piece of writing without the planning, the job of the writer is to create. Your writing can exist in a mutable state for a very long time. The best writing happens when the writer is discovering what happens as he or she is creating.

Think about the short stories that have had the greatest impact on you. I am going to suggest that these stories did not deal you a series of facts and scenes that described something you had complete comprehension of. The best stories we read, the ones we aspire to write, are the ones that leave us in a more mysterious world than we knew at the start, stories that illuminate questions rather than answers.

As writers, engaging in the act of discovery allows us to uncover questions. When we reveal a secret or solve a mystery, the goal is to leave the reader with another question, a larger mystery to solve.

Early work by beginning writers is often prone to explaining everything that can be possibly be explained to readers. We have a point, a theme, or a purpose in writing that we want to be sure our readers understand. This has to be abandoned in order to create compelling work. Once we cease our micromanagement of the reader experience, there’s more room for reader interpretation, which means a larger audience can identify with the story. Leave your readers with plenty of gray area, write on the cusp of what you don’t know, so that they can plug in their own experiences and perspectives, and eventually, you’ll be creating work that leaves readers both satisfied and unsettled.

Why do you love the stories you love? “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorites. It’s a concise narrative that raises big issues about death, gender, and coming of age. If we reduce the story to action, it is this: A boy accompanies his father and uncle to an Indian camp, where a woman is struggling with childbirth. The boy’s father must deliver the baby by cesarean section. The baby’s father is in the room and overhears the woman’s pain in labor. After the baby is delivered, the boy’s father discovers that the man has slit his own throat, unable to bear the woman’s discomfort. The boy’s uncle retreats from the scene, and the boy and his father discuss childbirth and death on the way home.

It’s a fine plot, but it’s not what makes the story memorable. What’s magnificent about Hemingway’s story is the final conversation between Nick and his father, in which Nick’s father assures his son that dying is very easy, and Nick feels as though he will never die.

In literary fiction, we tend to be drawn to a story for the issues it asks us to consider. We admire the actions that got us there, but we recognize that the action is the vehicle through which we receive the story. Outlining the action ahead of time leaves the writer prone to deciding what he or she wants the reader to get out of the work. That part isn’t really up to us. As writers, we have the great opportunity of raising themes, but we can’t provide conclusions to life’s great questions, only windows. We can advance the process of discovery, but to do that effectively, we must be engaged in discovering ourselves.

So, should you throw out your notes and outlines, your character sketches and all the pre-writing you have made a habit in your pursuit of creating good fiction? If it helps you get started, keep it. But if it’s keeping you from going new places in your writing, try another approach with your next project. Start writing. Write wherever you are in the story, whatever you know, whether it’s beginning, middle or end. Write until you arrive at the point at which you have no idea what comes next. And then, keep writing. See what that next sentence is. Push on to the next one. Keep finding words that turn into sentences, and each one will lead you to the next. Eventually, you may find yourself truly stuck. Okay, then. Time to move to another portion, don’t tie yourself to linear creation. Your only task is to create. The less you know before you start, the more you stand to uncover as you write.

 

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151 Comments

Tony

Great article. The wonderful thing about not outlining, is you can truly surprise yourself, and your story can go in a direction you likely would never have considering in outlining. There’s something about being there with the characters ‘in the moment’ that can help you connect with the story that’s trying to come out. I prefer to outline after doing the first draft. That’s when you can look at what you have, tighten it, alter it… but at least you have your heart down on paper first.

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linda eckhardt

I so agree. Trust the process. Trust the story. Ask yourself, and then what happened? Turn the page and keep writing.

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John Machen

I agree. I work in longhand and pencil, enjoying the slower pace, and asking myself, “And then what did he do?” I feel an outline would deprive me of the thrill of wondering as I write.

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Oana

That’s a very interesting perspective. I recognize that I haven’t thought about doing the outlining after writing my first draft. But indeed, it may be a wonderful solution to many writer’s problems:
* Procrastination: yet if you think of “how much outlining” you have to do before you actually start writing and how tedious that may be, you might find yourself delaying the actual writing for “tomorrow” and so on every day.
* Lack of ideas: when you see yourself in front of an outlining and you just don’t know where to head at cause you haven’t got enough information from you characters and from the plot to keep on sketching.
* Plot direction: when you eventually start writing, at the middle of your book, or even reaching the end you realize that the action and the novel itself dragged you into a different direction than the outlined and the pre-writing and sketching you’ve made it’s not as appropriate as you though it would be for that stage. In that moment, you find yourself with an internal battle trying to figure out “how to change your sketches” yet they’re already made and seems more natural to try to adapt them instead of directly dispatch everything.

Resuming, I had those problems myself. Now, the solution I’ve put to that while writing my first novel is that I only make a vague outline of chapters suitable for constant changing and revising. Even though it’s a better solution than a fixed sketch, I still find myself debating sometimes about towards where it should go my novel.

For that reason, I really liked the proposal of actually writing an outline right after you write your first draft: before your first, complete editing. As simple as that. Nice!

Greetings to you all!

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Nicu

The 3 problems you mentioned are actually non-problems:
* Procrastination: it’s not the amount of outlining you have to do that’s making you procrastinate, it’s just the laziness. You just want to do the fun part, the writing part, you don’t actually want to do the “work” part.
* Lack of ideas: the characters should be built to drive the plot, not the other way around. You should be able to build interesting, captivating characters capable of driving the plot forward without writing 200 pages of manuscript in advance.
* Plot direction: outlining actually helps with plot direction. What if you realise the plot has a huge problem after writing 300 pages of manuscript and now you have to correct that problem, but that means re-writing 150 of the 300 pages of manuscript? Then you might really regret not outlining beforehand, whouldn’t you?

The bottom line is: outlining allows you to identify the plot holes, character inconsistencies and other such problems before the actual writing part. This means you don’t end up with a 500 page manuscript that you have to rewrite because you just noticed some major plot hole.
Is outlining necessary? Hell no. But it will make the writing process quicker and less prone to error.

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Jamie

I 100% agree with this.

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Andy Anderson

Re-writing is part of the process. There is no easy way out, whether you choose to outline or write on the fly. Any questions, just ask Stephen King or George Lucas.

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Jamie Wilson

I agree, you have to rewrite anyways and I also do my outlines after my first drafts, they’re rough drafts for a reason. We’re writers, we all procrastinate, so to call each other lazy is counter productive because what works for one doesn’t work for another. Some might see outlines as fun and the writing as all the work, it’s all about perspective. I will say this, my latest draft really started coming together when I gave up linear writing, very hard at first, but the chapters just kept popping into my head so I kept writing them down, I will sort them all out and triple check with a continuity editor later. Great advice!

Jennifer

Yes, outlining is great. I’m a screenwriter and I do it. But not everyone does. Cormac McCarthy, for example, never outlines. And he seems to be doing OK as a writer. There is no hard and fast rule for everyone. I’m onto a second draft of a screenplay at the moment and have been absolutely bogged down in outlining, to the point where I’ve stopped trusting myself. And this article makes complete sense to me right now, it’s time to write and discover more that way. So yes, sometimes outlining is great, and sometime it’s redundant. There is no one way, at any stage of the game.

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L.L.

Agreed.
I’ve done both plotting and pantsing. Pantsing is fun but will require way more drafting/fixing—which is annoying. There will be hole after hole. You can discover just as many story ‘surprises’ while outlining, which is fun. And there will always be more ‘aha’ moments when the actual writing occurs that you can add in. Its not like everything just ends at outlining. Added bonus…any fixes take way less time to find and cure in outline form. The twists, the depth, the arcs are already fleshed and you can focus solely on the beauty of your prose when it comes to novel go-time.

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Samira

Thank you so much Tony . Your words and this article open my eyes to why I felt stuck in the creative process for I thought I couldn’t do it without an outline. I was even getting very depressed so you have no idea the joy that filled me in upon reading your comment on this magnificent article .
Thank you so much Tony .Good luck to all the writers suffering everywhere.

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Charlie Morriss

Writing is a process.

When does “writing” take place? Does “writing” only occur when once is hunched over a keyboard spewing out words?

When I’m burning through pounds of index cards for my outline, I am writing. When I am sitting at the Bisbee Grand Hotel drinking Jack Daniels and daydreaming about the curves on the bar stool next to me, I am writing. When I am Googling the hell out of every last detail about the history of a small town in Southern Utah, I am writing. When I’m staring aimlessly out the window of my office and creating a pool of drool on my desk, I am writing.

When I’m ready, I pound all of that stuff together into sentences and paragraphs, and even though the stuff that comes out the other end looks the gerund called “writing” at that point, I’m pretty damn sure I had been writing all along.

Have fun. We’re all going to die. Learn to deploy your creativity throughout the entire writing process, not just the clickety-clackety part of it.

Create an outline. Ask any good carpenter what “Measure twice. Cut once” means.

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kirstie

I’m with you. It’s a lateral process grounded by a linear anchor.

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Shawn

Sonyou write an entire draft and then write an outline of that draft for purposes of editing?? Ive never heardnof this approach. How has it worked for you, Kevin?

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Rt

I loved this article and the advice worked for me well. Thanks very much.

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Cassie

This is so fantastic. I haven’t written a word in months, because I thought I had to write an outline, and the outline just wasn’t coming. Reading this makes me feel like I can just go sit down and WRITE. Thank you so much for reawakening my imagination!

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Chuck

If you “haven’t written a word in moths” then you are NOT a writer and you should stop pretending to be one. Simple as that.

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George

If you can’t be helpful or supportive, then don’t offer advice. And if can’t spell (moths), then for sure don’t.

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emma

True that, George!

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Barry

And if ? can’t spell. Don’t.

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Kayle

How rude. Many people write for enjoyment, Chuck. Not for money and fame, like you.

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james

What a metric fuck ton of utter horse shit.

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Andy Anderson

Not “moths”, “months”. You are clearly not a writer, as a writer would double-check their work before submitting it to publishing. Just sayin’.

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Addison Christy

Chuck. May we assume you’re not an inspirational writer?

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Oonagh

I feel exactly the same way. When I started writing a year or so ago I felt bombarded by all the helpful advice online about how to write an outline and structure everything. I eventually wrote reams of story and dropped it for months because I was confused about what direction to go in next. Now I feel good about just sitting and allowing it to flow.

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Erika

I love this article because is to the point and it makes total sense. We are creators not essay makers, that a totally different deal. The whole point is to be attractive to certain book is because they grab us by our muscles. For me an outline is to be told what the movie is all about before seeing it.

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Avinash Sagar

Exactly the same feeling.. I can just go back and resume writing. I was reading an interview of a author where she admits she always know the end to her story/novel. She is an accomplished author and I was completely bowled over by the clarity of thought she had.
But this article helps me to think- I can shape the character and the story as it develops in my head!.
Thanks for this- Great motivation.

Cheers

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Thomas Jones

Ah, nothing like novel writing advice from someone who has never published a novel…..

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Ethan

Because you have?

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Annabelle

Best post. If outlining helps do it, if not don’t. This reads alot like the person who complained about NANoWriMO

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Chuck

Completely agree. Every asshole with access to the internet has a blog now about how to “be a writer” yet almost none of them are published. I AM a published writer, it’s how i make my living, and I can tell you the advice of this article is a complete joke. Follow it if you wish to spend the next ten years “writing” the same book that will turn out to be an incoherent mess. Ignore it and outline if you wish you make progress toward finishing your current novel and getting published. Simple as that. I’ll clue you guys in one something…actual writers don’t spend their time online “teaching” other people how to write. We’re kind of too busy writing novels. You want GOOD and APPLICABLE advice? Google Punching Babies and read that or Google Blake Snyder and read that. Saying “just sit down and write without planning” is like saying you’re going on vacation and you’re just going to get in your car and aimlessly drive around HOPING you’ll eventually arrive somewhere you might want to end up. it’s just stupid as hell, and it’s why most “internet writers” are UNpublished.

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Sam

if it’s good enough for george rr martin it’s good enough for any aspiring novelist!

i do agree though, it’s kind of absurd to expect yourself to write 40.000+ words without at least some kind of planning

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squigglewriter

In what way is this absurd, Sam? Thousands of writers making a living at this do it every day.

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Nicu

George R R Martin writes a book in 10 years. You know why? Because he doesn’t outline. When you already wrote 600 pages of manuscript and realize that something just doesn’t make sense and now you have to adjust for that, but that requires re-writing 450 page you’ve already written… then you’re pretty much screwed. If this happens 5-6 times during a long book like the ones in A Song of Ice and Fire series, this can delay you by years or writing. What could have avoided this? Oh, yes… outlining and solving all this plot holes during the outlining phase, back when you were just writing sentences and not actual pages of manuscript.
Yes, yes… I know outlining turns writing into work. But guess what, if you want to be professional in any field… you have to work and you have to go about doing your craft in a smart way.

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Derek

Yeah, George R.R. Martin is such a wonderful example of a writer gone wrong. Who would ever want to follow a path like his and create such an unsuccessful story…

B

Yes!

Emma Weylin

I think a better response to let writers find their own process of creating a book. An outline will kill my story. I’ve been writing for over ten years, AND, I have 7 published novels, with two more coming out in the next couple of months. The numbers of novels I have outlined and published is zero. On the other hand, I’m nine for nine in nailing book contracts for novels I started without a plan. The bottom line is for writers to take the time to learn how their creative process works the best for them. If that’s creating an outline, by all means, go for it, and eat up all the outlining advice you can find, but for me, it’s a waste of time.

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RJ Montero

I was just scrolling waiting to find this killer Reply. EXCELLENT!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH

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Jim Meirose

Absolutely correct! The approach described in the article is obviously written by someone without many years in the business.

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squigglewriter

I’ve published over 20 novels and have made 6 figures for the past several years from my fiction alone. I don’t write with an outline. There are plenty of professional long term writers who don’t work with an outline. In fact, the longer term the professional the LESS likely they are to be using outlines even if they started out writing that way. I know it seems unimaginable to you, but I’m guessing you’ve been in this business less than 10 years if you find it unfathomable that someone can write without an outline and write at a professional level making a living.

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Kayle

Having your novel published does not automatically make you a ‘good’ writer. I’ve lost count of the awful books that I have read, and ones with terrible grammar too. IMO, if you write to get published then you are not a writer. If you write for money and fame, you are not a writer. Writing comes from the heart. Writer’s support and encourage other writer’s. They don’t treat it like a job and try to wipe out the competition.

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Bill

Such a negative view Chuck… Some things work for others that may not work for you. I don’t care if you’re published or not. You come across as a self absorbed know-it-all with poor sentence structuring and writing skills, if your published work is anything like your comments then I dread to think of its content and how it reads. Is it all in CAPS and quotation marks? I’m sure with better prior planning and thought your comments will come out with less incoherent drivel. If you’re too busy writing novels why are you reading articles you dislike and spouting vitriolic shite in the comments? Are you struggling to focus on your latest work? I am a semi-planner… In so much that if I don’t plan I get lost as I progress with the narrative and too much planning tends to put me in a negative mindset about the work. A little of each seems to work for me.

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squigglewriter

Well, Chuck, I’m glad you came here to tell us all how to do art “the right way”. If only you’d been around to offer direction on the Sistine chapel. I make my living publishing fiction as well. I’ve made 6 figures from fiction writing alone for the past several years now. I don’t write with an outline. Outlines are stupid.

Now everyone reading has heard from two people making a living from their fiction on opposite sides of the pantser/plotter argument and they can just make their own decisions about what works for THEM and their art instead of what the Great and Mighty Chuck ordered them to do in a blog comment.

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Nicu

We’re not saying there’s only one way to skin a cat. There are writers that don’t outline and clearly it works for them, but in my opinion they are inefficient. If you want to optimize your writing process you have to consider how long it takes you to write a book… more books = more paychecks.

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Patrick

Chuck, with all due respect, I sincerely doubt you are the next Tolstoy or Hemingway. Being published doesn’t mean you are capable of writing literature that will stand the test of time. Anyone can churn out formulaic pulp fiction and get published.

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Samira

I’m sorry Chuck but you are a very aggressive and close minded person that perhaps makes a living writing. However,I wouldn’t call you a writer for you need to be a philanthropist, a humanist, a visionary in order to receive the noble title of writer. My question to you is why on earth are you doing reading this article if you’re so sure about the method you employs to get anything written?Why do you feel the need to attack others that like you would like to make a living with the written word? Remember in the 19th century in France poets and true writers like Baudelaire or Alfred de Musset relied on their Muses to deliver their magnificent works of art, what about the phenomenon of the ecriture automatique? You mention the late Blake Snyder and you’re right his advices are worth all the gold in the world but it was more related to the writing of a screenplay. I think there are two different schools of thought and what works for you might not work for another person. But please.please stop being arrogant and demeaning to others..you might scare your Muse or maybe she’s already gone..Alexander Payne a brilliant filmmaker who gave us Sideways and Nebraska never writes treatments for his projects, it is simply nit the right formula for him
.Lastly, writing a first draft intuitively is a just different method. This is how Francis Ford Coppola delivers his materials , the first draft allows him to have an outline (first draft not 500 pages!).
You don’t decide to become a writer to flatter your own ego so you can show off at a party and feel important to have your name on a book but more like acting you do it because it’s your calling and you have a lot of love to give!

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Angelica

Look, it’s simple. Outlines should not make a book less creative because guess what, outlining needs creativity. I’ve written without outline and believe me, that’s how I started. It didn’t work for ME. I crashed so many times into dead ends that made no sense and I had to restructure it. Now I’ve published my first book, which I wrote with an outline and just because I don’t ramble on for pages it doesn’t mean is not creative. Unfortunately, I believed it was because a bunch of arseholes kept telling me the same thing this guy is saying “Outlines are not creative! I mean, just because you can figure out how you are going to approach the book, what’s gonna happen, who’s gonna get killed off and what the twist is gonna be at the end, doesn’t mean it’s creative!” So I did something stupid, I started writing my second book without an outline… that was five years ago and I still haven’t finished and I am so unhappy with it that sometimes, I just feel like deleting the whole thing, take a step back and outline the story!
Now, I’m not saying that you too should outline, because writing is a personal process, different for everyone. But for me, not outlining DOES NOT WORK. And that doesn’t make me less creative, I still wrote a book I’m really proud of (the one I outlined). So just do whatever works best for you. But this article talking shit about outlining, that BS I will not tolerate, because it feels just as wrong as someone saying “Outlining is the only way to write”. That makes the arsehole who wrote this post a dick. There is more than one way to skin a cat, honey.
One last thing, George RR Martin books were a complete failure when they came out almost twenty years ago. The series made them popular.

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Denidekemet

I am gonna be honest. Just picking a pen and marking the paper won’t do much to help me deliver or kill my characters. I am for the idea that work should be planned but then the existence of the plan should not limit creativity, you could change the direction of the story whenever you feel like. I can’t imagine how a piece without objectives will turnout to be. I could be wrong; I have been rejected a number of times.

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Mark

Sorry Chuck, I am just not buying that you are a published writer. You can’t put together a “comment” without several mistakes.

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Michelle

“Actual writers don’t spend their time online ‘teaching’ other people how to write,” Chuck said on his own online post “teaching” people how to write.

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James Moran

Im an outliner, but I make my outlines purposefully vague so that Im forced to create and put effort in the details of my stories. When I outline my story, I get excited about writing it, and if theres something not working in the story halfway through, then I change the story AND the outline. An author can be just as fluid with an outline than a pantser can with nothing. I tried writing a novel without putting thought into my characters and storyline, and what was the result? Me sitting on the couch daydreaming and awaiting my muse. Sure, I could have forced myself to sit in front of the computer and write whatever came to my mind right then and there, and Ive done that many times actually, and what happens is that I fizzle out by the first few chapters because I have no idea whats supposed to happen next! Im more productive with an outline, more in-tune with my characters when I jot notes about the kind of people they are, and more inspired when Im constantly thinking and writing about my stories. To do something successfully, you have to be prepared for success as well as for failure.

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elizabeth

Your article sounds so good and encouraging, just like Buddhism or any unreal religions out there, the problem with all that is that it just doesn’t work. Without an outline you will be writing forever and without a focus. When the outline is not coming is either because you have too many goals in your novel which makes a difficult complex novel to deal with and in such a case you may have an arc for each different story that parallels the principal story or you may not be clear about the purpose of the story and the moral compass of the story. Well, just to make a point, sounding good doesn’t mean true, so much of our culture today follow (and I had my share of mistakes) what sounds good, only to the lost at the End. So, do your outline if you want to write a novel that sells, forget about it if you want to write for yourself and never intended to be publish because most likely you won’t. Hope this help someone.

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Nikhil

I’d actually agree with Elizabeth. Without an outline, I end up writing sprawling stories that seem to go somewhere inspired for a while, but end up going nowhere. I’ve heard that some writers are architects, others are gardeners. I happen to need an outline, a plan, even if it makes the story seem … smaller, somehow.

The messy, untethered idea of a novel feels like a larger story than the planned one. In reality, the messy one is just a vague dream, while the planned one has a chance of becoming a real novel.

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Emma Weylin

Elizabeth…Hi, I never write outlines because it kills my story. I have six novels published and one due out August 2015.

How about this, those who need an outline should outline, and those who shouldn’t outline shouldn’t? It really is that simple, and I do think writers should try both methods to find which method works best them. Don’t be afraid to tweak the method to suit your writing needs.

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Kai

Thanks for the advice and congratulations on your published novel!

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Dawn M. Turner

Right on target, Emma, and I got the distinct impression that’s basically what the author of this article is saying – TRY IT. If it works for you, let it fly. If not, you can always go back to outlining, whether superficially or hyper-detailed or anything in between. I finally stopped listening to all those folks who say you MUST outline to be able to write a story that doesn’t ramble, makes sense, blah, blah, blah. My work became fun again, and I was totally re-invigorated with the joy of creativity. Does pantsing work for everyone? No. Does outlining work for everyone? Not on your life. Shoot, I know some folks who do a combination of the two and it works fabulously for me. Figure out what works for YOU and go with it, regardless of what anyone else says is the “right” way. There is no ONE way. That’s really what the article’s author is getting at.

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Barry

Thank you. I am writing my first book and do not have an outline. My characters and their adventures surprise me often and I like that. No, they do not lead me on a wild goose chase because in my mind the story has a beginning, a middle, which is where they are now, and an end. What happens in the midst of all that is what makes the story. I’m pretty sure an outline wouldn’t allow Marcus, Liam, Denis and their half sister Juliana, to have all the adventure they are having now.

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squigglewriter

Really? You’re making pot shots at Buddhism? Are you freaking kidding me with this?

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Laura

I really think writers can be successful and good writing can come from both approaches. I think it’s important for the overplanner to take a step back and allow themselves to fly free every once in a while so that their writing doesn’t have an overly scripted feeling (and maybe to discover new things about their characters/stories that weren’t shaking free when holding to the outline) while writers who tend to fly by the seat of their pants can probably gain something from stepping back and asking themselves where they see the story going. Both can benefit from adopting the other’s style every so often.

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Adrianna

I competently agree Laura. One must do what is best for them.

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Adrianna

I’m sorry it’s completely agree. May it’s best to have some balance.

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Ethan

I agree almost completely with this article. I have found it is much more interesting to write not knowing where your story is going to end up. When I write, if I have already outlined something then I tend not to finish it, as I already know what will happen in the story and don’t feel the need to write a whole book about it. But when I do not have an outline, I can really get into the writing because I love a good story that I have never heard before, and it is always surprising what the mind can come up with when not restricted to something that was made beforehand.

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Michelle

I’ve published four novels (including a New York Times bestseller), and I’ve never written an outline. Not once. I believe so strongly in the pitfalls of outlines that I created The Paperclip Method: The No Outline Novel Workbook, a couple of years ago–it’s all about writing through discovery and exploration. And it’s so much more fun than outlining.

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The Case For Doing More Blog Planning Before You Write

[…] She later explained that a pantser was someone who wrote their novel on the fly, by the seat of their pants, with no outline. They wrote the murder mystery without knowing who the killer was ahead of time, maybe. There are many novelists who agree with that pantser work ethic: don’t outline your content. […]

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Gordon

This helped me a lot. Thanks! I’m a bit OCD so I have to write slowly and make sure each sentence flows with the next and fix grammar and spelling as I go. I haven’t ever finished a novel. Sometimes my brain puts things in my head and I think ‘I have to use this!’ Whether it’s a major plot detail or just a fun idea to encorporate into something else I’ll write it down but wont ever get very far with it. I think this answers my problem. If you have an idea and want to use it, share it, publicize it use this writing method to build a story around it. It wont go anywhere by itself.

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no name

Some people need to outline. That’s the way their brain works. A short story I could “pants” but I need a little bit of a blueprint for a novel. Especially a blue print to ensure I don’t have a boring middle. I’m not like Stephen King who never uses an outline.

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David

I think the real issue here is that new writers should try both ways of writing as early as possible to figure out what works best for them.

I was always overwhelmed by the idea of creating an outline, so I tried doing the discovery writing thing for two years and got absolutely nowhere. It just didn’t work for me. I got trapped by my own plot and the only way out was ignoring the glaring plot-holes and forging on to just get a first draft out (something I’m very bad at doing), or rewriting the work from the beginning for the 5th time, which essentially meant spinning my wheels and getting nowhere for god knows how long.

Basically it boiled down to this–writing by the seat of my pants was more “fun”…but I was never going to get anything finished that way cause I always hit a brick wall. Even if I managed to work it out, it was definitely not going to give me the output that’s necessary to turn this into a career someday (several books a year) because I’m just not a fast enough writer to go through a million rewrites like most heavy discovery writers have to do. Outlining isn’t as fun, I agree. But hey, being a writer is hard work sometimes. Go figure.

Sitting down and finally figuring out the best way for me to create a detailed outline was the only way I managed to finally finish a novel, and every single part of it was far better than my panster efforts were. Also, some of my favorite authors are HEAVY outliners, so…yeah. I can’t say I agree with this at all. Do what works for you and don’t listen to a damn thing anyone else has to say about what’s the “best” way.

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squigglewriter

Have you tried working without an outline again now that you’ve got more experience? My personal method started with outlining things to death, then I tried the no outline thing and ended up with a tangled mess, then I went back to outlines. As I learned more about story structure and how to tell a proper story, my outlines got thinner and thinner until I began working without a net altogether. Now I write without an outline (and sometimes entirely out of order) and the books are much stronger and not meandering. If outlines are working for you, awesome, but you might surprise yourself with what you can do without one after a bit of experience under your belt which you may have acquired by now.

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Percival Constantine

This is something that will work for some people. But it’s awful advice for others.

The best advice for any aspiring author is to try both approaches and see what works for them.

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Dipika

Let me stat out by saying that I’ve never written an outline. My first book “Someone Else’s Garden” took 4 years to write, my ebook “Two and a Half Weeks to Chocolate” under my pen name SW Galley only 3 weeks to write. What is more important than an outline for me, is to write a page or more a day.

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Jeanette Flint

I’ve been a wannabe writer for years. Part of what held me back was the idea that I HAD to outline. I’ve rebelled from the beginning, knowing that my brain doesn’t work in a staunch organized fashion and I believe outlining takes away from the inspiration and flow. In recent years I’ve written articles for content sites and have a couple of blogging sites. However I am now focusing on a murder novel and I feel certain it will get published. Thanks for confirming some of my thoughts on outlining!!

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Simon

Each sentence: The outline of the next.

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Pam

I understand what you’re saying, but every author needs to plan in his/her own way, and some can indeed write fresh, creative prose while using an outline, plot chart, spreadsheet, or other planning method. It depends on how detailed the outline is and how flexible the author is in changing it if needed. Think of an outline as a guide, a route, an overall view of the plot and not a structured agenda like the vacation from hell where every bathroom stop, meal, and entertainment is pre-planned.
I outline knowing what my premise is and how my character arc ties into the initiating event, plot and pinch points, black moment, climax, etc. only because if I don’t, I’ll end up writing an extra 200 pages for a 300-page book because I’m writing as I plan and planning as I write (total waste of time). I don’t outline by scene or chapter and don’t recommend it. I do just enough to give myself a big-picture look at the story.
To advise new writers that they should never outline is as bad as saying they should always outline. Each author needs to try different methods of planning–even if it’s jotting down a few notes–and find the creative method that works best for him/her.

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linda eckhardt

keep putting one word next to the last word. Like the famous California author says, build it bird by bird and word by word.

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Tate

I’ve found that whether or not outlining is for you (some writers depend upon it and others despise it), always make sure that you at least have a vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Know the general world of your story and what your character wants to accomplish; things like that. One of my favorite quotes about writing talks about how it’s like driving a car at night–you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can go the whole journey that way.

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Steven

A week ago I would have embraced this article enthusiastically. But now I am not so sure. Yesterday I received an email from a publisher concerning a submission I made. In their reply they are requesting a detailed outline of all the plot points, which seems to fly in the face of what this article says. Since up until yesterday I was firmly in the no-outline-used camp I am now thinking I’ll have to pitch my tent in the outline-used-always side.

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squigglewriter

Nora Roberts once had that same conundrum. Her solution? She wrote the book first crazy fast, then she made an outline of the book she wrote without one, and sent them that outline.

However, this is 2015, why do you even NEED a publisher in the first place? You have a much better chance of making a living at this if you self-publish than if you have an outside publisher unless that publisher is offering you a crazy 7 figure deal.

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Melody

This article was incredible, and it really put a lot of things into perspective for me. It’s really made me think about the power the characters and the story holds. I’ve found that when I start a long-term writing project with absolutely no clear direction, it just leads to plenty of confusion and an end to that story or idea before it can begin to take life. However, when I plan things out I find that I get extremely descriptive an end up writing the story in my head, so I get bored when it comes to the actual writing. In the end, there has to be a balance. I believe that if you have a “general idea” of where you’re going, then you’re on your way to creating an incredible story.
Thanks for your help!

~Mel

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Catherine H.

I think whether you outline or not really depends on your personality and how your brain works. Personally, I need an outline, even if it’s just main plot points. I started out just writing my novel – no outline – but I ended up with a serious case of writer’s block which I just couldn’t shake. I realized it was because I had no idea where my story was going. Once I drew up an outline, I had a vision for my story and was able to get stuff done.

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Beatrice

My sentiments exactly miss Catherine H. I began with nothing and let my imagination run wild. I wrote the introductory paragraphs but soon after was completely at a loss of what would come next and had absolutely no idea what my end goal would be.
I decided to write an outline, and it was quite detailed in the sense of how the fictional reality I created worked. Having that jotted down, led to the creation of a vague outline which had all the main plot points in my story, including how it would end.

I don’t regret outlining the story, because every time I sit back down ready to write, I know where I’m going and what I need to do to get there.

Anyway, I think free flow is great to get started, but the outline can be useful when hitting a wall.

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sharon

Thank you .

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Pilot One

Different folks, different strokes! I think it’s best to stick with what works best for you. Outlining may be just perfect for some of us and it may deter the flow of inspiration for some others. Blessing.

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Tiffani Leigh

In all honesty, this is just a biased opinion. Every writer has the own way of writing a book. For all we know a higher inspirational novelist write better with an outline. More power to them for making an outline because it does take a lot thinking and correctly written ideas that actually made it big.

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Angana Chatterjee

Hey, I loved your article! Congrats on ur book. I’m a 15-yr-old, and I’m planning to write a novel too, basically on my current life, the experiences and probably it will be pretty abstract. To start with, I need some help. I write. A lot. XD .. You can check out my blog site.. About this novel, I think it’s not going to be a typical teen novel though. 🙂 I wish to get some tips, like, don’t I need to frame out the plots, arrange them in a series and stuff? Hmm.. I would love to get some suggestions.. And I’m open with the ideas. 🙂 Thanks. Waiting for a reply.

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Rose Allen

Well Angana, just to let you know, I have never been published so my advice may not be accurate but it’s what I’ve to be true. 🙂

I think, if you want to write a book on your own experiences, you should sit down with a piece of paper and write down certain experiences are defining in your life. For example, I’m a Christian, so a defining moment in my life is when I believed in Jesus Christ for the first time and that has influenced every other decision I’ve made in my life. So, once you’ve written down those things, figure out what kind of characters you want to create and then just write! I find I work better with the no outline approach most of the time, but I like to get to know my characters a little bit to help me get started. For example, I’m trying to write a book about college football right now and one of my protagonists is a quarterback. To outline his backstory, I actually sat down and wrote an interview. I interviewed him and asked him questions and he told me. Of course, I am his creator and wrote his responses, but it helped to flesh him out as a person. 🙂 hope this helps. Good luck on your book. Btw, I’m really encouraged that you’re interested in writing at your age. I’m actually in high school myself so it’s fun to find people near my own age who are interested in writing. God bless!

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Olivia

I am not sure if you are still waiting for an answer.

But I will answer.

I am a twelve year old and I am currently twenty pages in my first draft. It’s going really well.

I would recommend, if you are planning to write a novel, to outline. Even if it’s just a bit (the whole plot in five sentences) or a lot (every scene, one NB page long), you have to do it.

You should also know your characters. Interview them, or have a D&D type character sheet – or a whole entire backstory.

Finally, I recommend buying writing books. Not just about writing a novel, but about improving your prose – I recommend How Not To Write A Novel: A Mis-step by Mis-step guide (the name is something like that.)

Good luck.

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Steve

I’m an illustrator who sketches before he draws. I’m a musician who creates a demo and writes lyrics before he draws. So yes, I’m also a writer who creates an outlines before he writes. Art can be pre-planned without being DOA.

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Steve

Typo above – should be “creates a demo and writes lyrics before he records.”

And I’ll add, yes it’s possible to create a stiff story if you outline with too much detail, or if you don’t divert from your outline when needed. But when done with the right approach, outlining frees you up to be more creative, not less.

On the flipside, many books that meander and lack a strong and satisfying plot were created by writers who didn’t outline and who would have benefitted from that process.

Take it a step further to many of those reading this article – people who haven’t yet written a book but who want to – and I think you’ll find the majority are much better served by being encouraged to outline rather than to just wing it. Asking writers who’ve completed one or more novels if they prefer outlining will give a fairly even yes/no response, but ask most of the people who attempted a novel and failed why they gave up and the most common response will be, “I got to a point where I didn’t know where I was going.” Outlining can go a long way toward preventing that.

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bjbg

It seems to me that definitions are needed. What’s meant by “outlining,” and what’s meant by “just create.” Outlining is of necessity and in many ways a creative process. In fact, I dare say, nothing is just created. The mind of necessity organizes ideas and thoughts. The issue becomes, what works best for the individual who is aiming to write.

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pseudo

I like the line from “Finding Forester” in which Sean Connery says “Write the first draft from your heart, the second draft with your brain”. Bottom line, writers write. If you need an outline use one. My first published novel took me 90 days to write and five years to finish. It’s gotten easier since then. Part of that is having a team. Please don’t let professional advisers tell you how to write and unless you are entirely interested in simply writing vegetarian popular fiction (nothing wrong with that if it pays the bills and keeps you interested), don’t follow any kind of formula. Let your work write itself. If you need an outline to keep you on track, use one, but don’t be enslaved to it and don’t make it too detailed or it will become your end product which will prevent any of us from reading your marvelous creative work.

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Bec Hombsch

I love this. I have written/completed four novels, my first three weren’t planned I just wrote. And to be honest they just flowed and came out so quickly. My fourth book in the series, I planned because I was told it was better that way. I took twice as long and I was often left staring at the screen, stressing about that scene taking too little or too many words, one scene not flowing onto the next as well as I would like. Eventually I threw the plan out and it the story finished writing itself.
I am a firm believer in the characters tell the story the author just writes it down. Planning takes that element away from it.

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Marie

I agree. When I plan a novel with a high level of detail, I end up trying to stick to it perfectly. That ends up being no fun, and the level of interest is shown in the quality of my work. Everyones writing style is different, they should experiment with what works for them.

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Jeff Lyons

At the risk of starting a firestorm of vitriol, I would suggest this article falls prey to one of the biggest myths in creative writing, i.e., that outlines are a buzzkill to the creative process. Just the opposite is true. Story development, of which outlining is one technique, liberates your writing, it does not stifle it. Writing and storytelling have nothing to do with one another. They are different talents, crafts, and skills. Most writers are lousy at the story function, they may be good writers, but most people are weak storytellers. Thus, story planning, development, whatever you want to call it, is essential to help support creativity. How? By giving form to the process, not to control and dominate the process, but to direct and harness it–like the banks of a river giving direction to water. No banks, what happens? Floodwaters. It’s the same with creative writing. Without the banks of the story development river to give support, the writing process with flood all over the place and you will be drowning in pages in no time. A small percentage of writers have the “story gene” and can knock out pages without any planning and they do a pretty darn good job. They have the talent, they have the gene, it comes naturally to them, like flight to an eagle. If that’s you, you are very fortunate. But, most writers don’t have the gene and they don’t know story from a steak sandwich. If they Just “do it,” they are soon lost int the story flood plain because they have no guidance (natural or otherwise). For them (the vast majority of writers) the “just create” approach makes their writing process cumbersome, unnecessarily long, and inelegant. “Just create” or “just write,” or “the story will write itself” is disastrous advice for most people, because they don’t have the natural talent to avoid the flood plain. Stories NEVER write themselves and characters NEVER write themselves. Anyway, here’s what I think about outlining: http://bit.ly/1N9uhrx —I hope it helps somebody. 🙂

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Andi V.

I agree, Jeff. While the planning doesn’t have to be as detailed as a building plan, writing a novel isn’t the same as writing a short story. For most people it is impossible to keep track of the real traits of a character they describe, so characters look inconsistent. They also let their writing wander and the point becomes more and more obscure, hidden behind the flow of words. The novel becomes unbalanced – spend 3/4 of the time building the characters and 1/4 developing the plot and so on.

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Sheena

I may have a different perspective here, and I hope it helps. Your article reads to me very much like the advice of a creative writing teacher, or a modern sculptor. In classical art, as in classical music, classic literature, etc… it is the technical prowess, the planning and execution of the thing that takes it from a good idea towards something akin to ART. I would never just sit down and throw a bowl, no no no, bad potter. I would never just carve out the features of a woman I vaguely remembered, I would make models, sketches, points upon a each plane of my precious piece of marble before even thinking of digging in. As a classic artist, and writer, I believe that bucket loads of people have good ideas, some even great ideas, but it is the execution of that idea, the technique, that makes it art… at least in my mind. To each his own and best of luck with however it works for ya’ll.

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Michael Corvus

Great, informative article =-)

I’d like to suggest to those interested to read the writer’s book “Stomping Kittens: a first-draft workbook” as it helped me tremendously. I bought it on recommendation from a multi-published friend, and it has done wonders for my writing. Before, I took me a year or more to complete a novel, but now after reading Stomping Kittens I’ve been cranking out my novels about 1 every 4-6 months!!! It really is an amazing workbook, and at least for me and thos ei know who have used it, it has improved our wriing 1,000%!! And don’t let its title put you off, if you’re serious about writing then I suggest you at least check it out. Give it a free read on Amazon, at least =-)

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Rick H

I am reading a book by C.S. Lakin about novel construction and find it to be very informative and original. She advises (and I am trying it) to construct a timeline first, rather than an outline. I have already written my plot down using a timeline and who knows? I may not even need to use an outline.

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Diogeneia

This article is harmful to new writers and it’s remarkably short-sighted and ignorant of story planners actually work.

First off, writing is not JUST art. It is ALSO craft. It uses grammar. It has structure. This “writing is art” crap is elitist garbage that people say so that they can then declare things like “writing can’t be taught,” “you either have writing talent or you don’t,” and other nonsense. BEWARE of anyone, including authors, agents, publishers and editors who spout this junk. They either don’t want to be bothered with you or they are trying to cull the herd by giving you bad advice that will get you binned.

Do whatever amount of story planning will help you finish a draft. Period. If what you’re doing now isn’t getting you there, try something else. If you are “pantsing” your stories and can’t get anywhere, consider planning–even outlining.

Outlining does not stifle your art. It directs it. It becomes the bones on which you build. Even great painters often sketch the OUTLINE of the image they wish to paint. As the image progresses, the outline evolves. It works the same for writers. Outline, but don’t view it as a prescription carved in stone. Tweak it, change it, move beyond it. It’s purpose is to keep you focused on THIS story, THIS set of characters, and helps you recognize tangents for what they are.

Oh? You’ve come up with a great idea, but it goes way off the rails? Instead of wasting days, weeks, or even months going off course, make a note about it and explore it later–separately. For now, focus on the story you decided to tell. FINISH IT.

When you’ve been an author for a while and the structure just falls in place; when you can plot an entire novel, envision the character arcs, themes, etc. in your head; when you don’t have to struggle with verb tenses, dependent/independent clauses, m-dashes and ellipses; when you can envision all of the rules for a complicated speculative fiction novel and keep them straight for 80K or more words… yeah… just sit down and start writing.

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Rachel

I stumbled across this article after Googling “Outline a novel.” The article was interesting enough, but it was the comments that really caught my attention. I can appreciate the merits and disadvantages of both sides of the argument, however, I don’t really see why some people are so insistent that there is only one way to do this. This is what so many aspiring writers find so stifling. They try to do this one thing that is absolutely the “right” way to be a writer and end up feeling confused and disenchanted when it doesn’t work for them. It takes such courage to call yourself a writer in the first place, and comments like some of those I saw above do not help! All of us who write find our way, and through interactions we can offer guidance, but ultimately each individual’s path will be their own. That is part of why being a writer is such a beautiful thing. If we all had the same story to tell, the library would be an awfully empty place.

By the way, for all the people who say they have published novels, please add links or some other identifying information, so that I can read them. It hardly seems fair to say that you’re a “published author” without creating the opportunity for the rest of us to investigate your credibility for ourselves, and in doing so, who knows, you may even pick up a couple of new readers.

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Annie Macdonald

I couldn’t access the free 7 day bootcamp

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Frederick Fuller

I have two novels published. Outline is a vague term. Is it a plan, a set of lines enclosing something, a diagram, a general description, a summery? What? My novels were planned, one over a period of 50 years. I wrote it in a year, and I took reams notes on details I added to support the plot.

My second novel was a lark. Loving cats as if they are my children, I wanted to write a love story from their POV. Hence, all the characters are cats, and, yes, they talk. I did massive research in order to understand details of cats’ lives. Again, my research notes were a sort of outline. I wrote it in three months.

In each book I knew where I was going; the end was clearly in sight. If outlining is planning, then I dare say all writers outline because somewhere deep inside their minds is the story and it does bubble forth outline or no outline. It is an ooze that cannot be stanched.

Is it necessary to write the plan out and hang it on your wall, or write it on the wall as Faulkner did. To all of that I say, whatever floats your boat and succeeds.

To outline or not to outline is a debate that writers have all the time, and, to repeat, the answer, invariably, is whatever works for YOU.

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Mandee

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. By Stephen King. Another interesting take on the journey of stumbling through the storytelling process.

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Natasa

I love that book, it’s a must read for all authors!

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ottostok

Be “obsequious, clairvoyant and purple…” as Steve pointed out, and if you would like to sit in the corner and ‘suck eggs’ so be it, you choose to do it whatever way works for you. Like most my fellow irrational ‘beans, jumping off the cliff, then asking why is more commonplace, planning is kind of therapy after the fact, created as a sort of safety mechanism for when we inevitably ‘f…up’, it’s in our nature to err, as it is to be human, no one size fits all situations. If you wish to be obsessive compulsive about a process, as Steve says, Be “obsequious, clairvoyant and purple…” then go in the corner and ‘suck eggs’, otherwise fly by the seat of your pants and don’t ask why this, that or the next thing happened. Make sense?, probably not, just a stream of thought as a means of therapy for a brief moment of writers block…. Yahooo…..I love being purple, obsequious, clairvoyant and slightly mad…..

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Amanda

I agree with the folks at Storywonk.com: some people are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants) and some are plotters, and there is nothing wrong with either. Whatever helps get your story told is fine.

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Esh

I personally think an Outline shouldn’t harm a story in any way, but I agree that it’s wrong to tell people that you need an outline to make a story work. The same way, it shouldn’t be wrong to do it, either. It has no reasons to “increase the likelihood of your story being dead on arrival”. Mostly, the problem is with the concept of outlining: you don’t need to make a series of events that will happen and you MUST follow the outline or the story will be wrong and you MUST have everything planned or it will be wrong. An outline won’t kill your story. It’s a guide that stands beside you when you need it. As a comment from above said, the outline isn’t carved in stone. It’s a technique that can help you when you feel your story is going nowhere (and I mean going nowhere, not somewhere else from your first objective, because if it’s like that then there is nothing wrong with it, it’s simply evolving) and you need to remind yourself what you wanted to do. But of course, this is when you know what you want to do with a story. If you don’t, then there is absolutely no need to outline (it wouldn’t make any sense). Actually, I would say there is never the NEED to outline–it’s a way to help you if you want it. You can take it or not. You can write an outline and then erase it completely. I take an outline as the chance to put in order your ideas when everything feels mixed in your head (especially what happens to new writers), but I don’t recommend a huge, complete outline. I’m talking about a small paragraph or a short sequence of events, only the ones you are currently wishing to put in your story. It feels as if people are taking the subject too far like it is completely necessary to write one or completely forbidden. It’s a technique, just like timelines or character sketches or writing-without-looking-back or a rain of ideas. If you spend too much time preparing the novel instead of writing, OF COURSE it will be a disadvantage, because extremes are never good. But if you feel confident with an outline there is nothing wrong about trying it. What the article says works the other way too: what might not work for a writer, it actually might work for another. Don’t go to extremes. Don’t feel the need to write an outline and don’t feel afraid of writing one.

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Rob

“…pencils of word processors…”

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Maleeq Triwealth

Giving writing advice can be tricky; the one giving the advice is, more than likely, sharing things and methods in accordance to their own experiences with writing. What works for one may not work for another (but that’s just a man stating the obvious). That’s why I’m slow to hand out advice. Perhaps our own little methods might come in handy for some other person and so sharing it doesn’t harm anyone, I get it; however, subjective opinions on how one should handle their fiction is not the gospel, and should NEVER be taken as such, which is what most new “writers” do (hence the stifling). The perspective given above is good, for certain people of course, who have the same mentality as you. Honestly, I both outline and, without an outline, dive into my tales. Yet, like most of the people in these comments either said or alluded to: just do what comes naturally to you.

Blessings,
Triwealth

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Margaret Langstaff

You hit the nail on the head. Writing is an act of discovery, an adventure into the unknown, a journey into the terra incognita of one’s imagination. The best writers intuitively embrace their explorer role, thrill to it. Great post!

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Sarah Clemens

As someone who wrote a book without an outline and really struggled but insisted anyway that I would never, ever use an outline I completely understand the points raised in this article. “An outline will kill my creativity,” I protested. But when I decided to start another novel I essentially wanted to do everything I did not do the first time and I signed up for a class being offered by James Patterson through MasterClass. I did not realize he had sold more books than any other author in the world, but learned this while researching the course and ultimately signed up for it.
Anyway, one of the first things he preaches is an outline and I though “oh, here we go. I’m not doing an outline.” And then he shows you his outline for one his books, never before released and it kind of clicked. He vehemently defends outlines in a way I’ve never heard. How can you know that you don’t write yourself into a corner 80 pages into the process (which I did with my first novel) without an outline? With his example I set out on an outline for my new novel. Everything is in it but it’s not a complete word-for-word description of the book. There are “stage directions” if you will, of what I need readers to feel in a scene and maybe dialogue in another scene.
He explains that the outline should be so complete (not well written, but complete) that you should be able to sell it to a publisher when it’s done. Now he has published 75 novels, and again, most successful author in the world with some of the most high profile agents and publishers in NY, and he writes and outline for every. single. novel so I’ll give it a shot! But if that doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. Doesn’t mean you should never do it. Obviously it works for him and he insists every author does the same.

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BettySpinks

I get what you’re saying, but I think telling writers not to outline is horrible advice. As an analogy:

Get in your car and start driving. It’s a matter of life or death and you have one week to get there. Where’s there? I’m not telling you, but go on, get there.

See why this doesn’t work? Yes, you can stop at Disneyland or go to the beach and oh, wasn’t that fun and organic, but as other commenters have pointed out, many writers will neither want nor have the time to eventually get “there” at the end of a 500 pg manuscript and have to go back and find the story in that road trip to nowhere.

Now, let’s try this analogy:

Get in the car. You’re a country girl starting your journey in a small town in Kansas and you’re headed to New York City to chase your dreams. You have one week, but you’re gonna stop at a sketchy truck stop, a roadside attraction featuring the world’s only two-headed pig, your long lost grandmother’s house, and a karaoke bar–suddenly you have a loose idea of where “there” is.

And now, armed with the knowledge of this simple outline, you, the writer, have the freedom to deviate from your plan, allowing adventures to organically appear.

Writing a novel without an outline is probably worth doing once. But giving yourself a basic outline is not limiting your creativity.

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Whitestone

Conclusion does not match thesis. It is sheer deception to say don’t outline, then to play antihero and say, “If it helps you get started, keep it. But if it’s keeping you from going new places in your writing, try another approach with your next project.” Deception, since such was not the topic.

Plan to elucidate, first for yourself. If you have no idea where you are going, then the reader will sense that every damn time and will lose all faith in you.

Plot, but allow for growth – a midnight tryst with a memory of a Keats poem may suddenly need to play its part in your plot. So, let it. Do not be so rigid as to remain fastidiously and immutably bound to a preconceived plan. For what is a plan? Plans are not meant to survive the battle field, and the creative mind is war (and ecstasy).

You absolutely must know your characters, and who pushes whose buttons, and who wants what and who will support the fulfilling of the want, and who are traitors to such want-fulfilling. You must know. And you must know how the characters have hithertofore lives and how they will live once your hero and heroine sail far across the sunset sea. Or your characters will look like hastily contrived plot devices, which removes dignity from reader, writer and our dearly beloved characters.

Pantsers hearts beat faster for such validation – relief from the burden – “I don’t have to outline!”

Plotters hearts all broke.

In sum, neither a pantser nor plotter be; but be the alloyed ally of both.

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Tate

I think this is all very good! However, I would be cautious with telling all writers “don’t outline” or “do outline,” because in many cases I feel like it comes down to how it works with the AUTHOR. Personally, I need to start with more of an outline or it falls apart very fast and I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. Others can’t stand having that. It’s whatever will make the novel a good one, right?

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James Passmore

Let me tell you this much: I can tell a novel that has been written without an outline. I can tell because when it comes to what you might call the third act in screenwriting circles, the author suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat, drops some godlike coincidences in, starts in with the meaningful coincidences; the deaus ex machina winds down out of the sky like a hot air balloon. This happens because he had no idea how the story was going to end, so he had to actually think up one that could be grafted on. And what was he doing at that moment? He was outlining. Right at the end. Right at the last possible moment, when he had no room to move.
Stephen King is one of the great advocates of non-outlining novels, and he is one of the greatest offenders. At the end he suddenly drags in some extra paranormal stuff that can rescue his people. God might as well of pulled them up to heaven.
I am a big Stephen King fan, but this particular fault is illustrated in his work.
Look, it’s not either / or – you can do both – you can outline basic scenes in front without actually tieing everything down – like waypoints. Some times you hit them and sometime the story goes off another way – and if it does you adjust your waypoints, like a GPs route, stretching out and changing as you choose which way….or your characters do….
I like to know what I am heading for, but I don’t have to know everything. So I outline a bit, so that I am confident that I have somewhere to go. I can go better places though.

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Ed Gregory

I’ve read many arguments and listened to many discussions by top writers both pro and con regarding outlining/planning. The bottom line is YMMV.

To suggest that the no-outline approach will be better for everybody is ludicrous.

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HLessJon

This article made me think of the Briggs Myers personality types. This seems to be a great illustration of several of them.

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John

I completely and totally disagree, this is why novels end up being complicated, convoluted, unfocused and full of plot holes, especially if there is flashbacks or time travel. I would advise outlining absolutely every aspect of the entire thing and make sure its got a fantastic arc, memorable character development, foreshadowing, and no plot holes. This article is the worst advise possible. Your book will be a nonsensical nightmare.

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Nathalie M.L. Römer

I am probably the most opposite of outlining most of the time. I only ever know a title and I write ten keywords down which might matter to the story I am trying to tell, and often not all get used. Maybe when I am a well-known author I can dare myself to write a book about how I write.

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George Pizzo

Thank you for the article. I’m a non-professional writer who contributed mostly on-two page stories to a retirement newsletter for ten years. I told bio stories about me, others and events that happened around my job as a Customs officer. There were also stories about singer/songwriters, music, restaurants etc. I’d say 80-90 of these things were included in run of the newsletter. Now the newsletter is over and I’m thinking of writing a novel on a real event I was involved in while working. I don’t want the event to be the story but the characters and hilarious stories surrounding them the glue that binds the reader to keep reading the book. – Catch 22, Doctor Strangelove and The Secrets of Harry Bright all come to mind when I think about the story. Your article makes sense to me because my previous work just came to me and I wrote it. It included humor, seriousness and a message. I will try and write the idea for a book the same way. One chapter at a time. Thank You again.

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Jessica

I loved this article. I can relate so much. Sometimes I will just give up on a story because I don’t think I have enough ideas to pursue it. I have these scenes in my head but I don’t know where I want to go with it. But this helped me a lot next time I get a scene idea I’m just going to write it and see where it goes.

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Olivia

I agree… and disagree. For the novel that I am currently writing, I outline. A lot. Each scene has about a notebook page of outline; and yet every time I write the scene I still discover. I take a small detour. A turn.

See, writing a novel is like taking a long road trip.

Generally you have to plan; otherwise most people will turn back when they’ve barely even started. But sometimes you shouldn’t stick to your map. Sometimes you should go to that interesting village several miles off the road, sometimes you got to explore.

I will outline for this novel. But maybe next time I will, as you say, just write.

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Oliver

Here are the reasons you should outline:

1. You fix plot holes.
Oftentimes when you don’t outline, you end up with a ton of plot holes, or places that don’t make sense, because you didn’t plan ahead. You didn’t think up a plot that makes sense. You just decided to write, without thinking.

2. You can foreshadow
If you outline, you have more room for foreshadowing stuff, because you know what’s going to happen.

3. You have something to lean on
You get stuck. You always get stuck, and just pushing on won’t do anything. With an outline, you can skip ahead: if you get stuck, just move on to that other scene you planned.

4. It’s not less interesting and you have as much fun
I can actually argue that it’s more interesting, because you’ve planned out the plot carefully. When you’re outlining, you’re not less creative. You’re /more/ creative… because all your creativity is happening at one creative time, all throughout the novel. And you have the same amount of fun. Regardless if you’re a pantser or an outliner, writing a book is equally fun – maybe more fun as an outliner, because you don’t get stuck as easily.

5. You write quicker.
Having an outline to lean on gives you a place to go. With a place to go, you get there quicker. If you /don’t/ outline, then you’re going to hit dead-ends, you’re going to pause at the screen trying to figure out what comes next. You’re going to be figuring out your story at the worst time possible – when you’re actually writing. When you’re outlining, though, you write faster.

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Stop-out

I don’t outline or plot or chart or do any kind of prep work other than making sure I have a cup of tea beside my laptop. The only thing I do is start with a “what if” question (thank-you Stephen King), pop my first line in and I’m off and running. The question shapes the direction of the story, so I have a vague idea of where I’ll end up. The getting there is the fun part, because serendipity lends a hand and she can be a beast.

I do admire those of you who plan ahead with charts and index cards etc. etc., plotting every detail, but it’s not for everyone.

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Brad

Thank you for this article. Being new to writing, my first instincts are to outline basics. Not too detailed but something to track plot point(s) and to stay on task.
Thank you to all that left portions of there own processes as comments. I have read them all!

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Cate Hogan

A very helpful article, thanks. I tend to write from the seat of my pants, but have learned –the hard way– that following a loose outline and plot structure can save my editing budget down the line. I recently featured a post on my blog with 5 key plotting techniques, which you might find interesting. http://catehogan.com/how-to-write-a-novel-plot-structures/

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VideoPortal

For certain kinds of novels such as mysteries, some kind of outline or plan is almost necessary because there are many small details that have to fit together at the end.

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Frank Peter Oliver

Glad I read this article – very true. Considering what this editorial group has to it’s name, I’d trust their advice. Sure, for some an outline might work, but my WIP has been a voyage of discovery for the lack of an outline. I follow enough agents (actually hundreds) on social media to know what attracts them – something new and different. P.S. One screenwriter was recently heard to say, “The worse crime you can commit, is telling the audience something they already know.” As this article mentioned, having an outline reduces the chance of that happening – be original!

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joe sixpak

totally bullshit advice
professionals plan
wannabees ‘create’
you can create more better faster easier with 3×5 cards than just writing

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j.r

What kind of quack is this – I want to see her work and compare it to mine.
Lets have a real time write off, and let the readers see for themselves what type of approach is more productive. Contact me – Im serious, lets agree beforehand to promise to post our final product after 1, 3, 5 weeks nomatter what we come up with, and we’ll see whos is more interesting, reads better and is all around more marketable at the end

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Barry

I would think writers that outline are afraid. They don’t trust their imagination and probably wind up with a stiff piece of fiction with no heart.

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Mike

It always amuses me when people wax poetic about how outlining somehow stifles a writers creativity, or somehow puts a stranglehold on it, when in fact the only one putting a stranglehold on your creativity is in fact you.

It’s not the process hurting your creativity, it’s your own close mindedness to embracing another tool as a tool that’s gumming up the works, and here’s why.

Nowhere are there any hard and fast rules dictating proper outline use / construction. There are guides, and suggestions, but nobodies going to call you up while you’re writing if you veer off script because you’ve gotten a new idea for the story.

Outline as little or as much as you want, it’s really up to you, and what’s most important to remember is nothing you put down is set in stone. Feel free to change anything (and everything) if while in the process of writing the story and filling in the remaining blanks (aka, exactly how your story plays out in words vs the stripped down version of how it plays out in your outline.). Happens to me all the time, and the outline provides a good roadmap for the stories general direction, but I’m never afraid to change and explore other options as the ideas arise.

Stop thinking of story outlines as a box that’s constraining you, and rather think of them as a loose path for your thoughts to wander on, rather than wandering in the dark. Outlining doesn’t detract from the “art” of writing, if anything it enhances it.

As for not outlining that’s fine, it’s just a different method of story planning that requires much more experience to pull off successfully in a reasonable amount of time. If you don’t outline you’ll find yourself making draft after draft trying to “find” your story, and if that’s a process you enjoy then more power to you. Go enjoy that process.

I personally prefer to do my “early drafts” as outlines and save myself the headache of writing multiple entire drafts of a novel, but some people prefer giving themselves and unnecessarily excessive amount of work and if that’s your thing *thumbs up* kudos.

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Nef

Some people swear by outlining because it works for them. Some swear by not outlining because it doesn’t work for them. I think it’s a useless argument to get into. Jut find the formula to your success and apply it.

Some people are prescriptive and arrogant when it comes to telling others how they do their jobs and think that because it worked for them, it has to work for everybody. We see some examples of that in this thread. Also, to those who think that if it’s compensated monetarily it’s not art, you need to grow up. You can keep doing your free work if it’s what pleases you, but if I’m given the opportunity to be paid for doing what I love, I’m keeping that check.

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Rick

Exactly I agree 100%
Personally I mostly outline because without any plans or structures I end up deviating a full 180°. I can’t help exploring every little detail so without a plan I end up focusing too much on unimportant things and dragging stories in completely wrong the directions until I’ve exhausted that path.
Writing a plan is perfect for me because I can put in all the little details I want into the plan and when it comes to writing a first draft I can exclude any details that are irrelevant to the direction of the plot but the knowledge that they are there adds a layer of depth to me and gives me some background resources to touch on where and when I need them.
I like to have an idea of how absolutely everything in the worlds I create work and how they all interact with each other so I personally need a space to put all of that to one side for only me to know, with it all ready to pull in to the story when I need it.
But just because I have a plan and all these details doesn’t mean I’m rigidly stuck to it once I start writing the drafts, I like to get most of my creativity out while I’m planning and it’s just when I get most of my ideas but if while writing a draft I get a good idea I’ll just go back and fit it into the plan and amend my notes. Anything that needs to be re-written to fit a new idea might be a pain but it’s a natural part of the process that can’t be avoided no matter the method you use for writing a book.
If you find that writing the book is tedious after having it all planned out then either writing a plan isn’t for you, at least not for the story you’re writing, or the idea isn’t really one that enthuses you as much as you would like to think it does, in which case it might be better to scrap it and recycle it for a story that really gets you excited and keeps you excited.
Personally I could have everything planned out down to how many hairs are on a minor character’s head and for me that wouldn’t make the actual writing more tedious, I love the idea of having information that is just kept to myself that a reader will probably never know and I don’t lose any sense of wonder for the worlds I create. If I start to get bored then I reassess the idea and pinpoint where I lost me excitement for it.
Not everyone is the same and for some people the way their minds work and creativity expresses itself means that they can’t make good plans without them feeling forced and for these people the amount of outlining should be kept to a minimum, because you can always tell when a story is forced.
Some kinds of stories are best written without any kind of plan, and some need extensive planning in advance in order to make sense.
Basically whether or not you make any sort of plan for your book, and how much planning you do, ultimately depends on the idea that you have, how much it excites you and most importantly depends on what it is that gets your creativity flowing. It really is a case of going with the flow, not against it. Do whatever feels natural to you and see where you end up. Until its printed you can make any changes you like, and even afterwards you can still make small changes.
I’d also like to mention in relation to a comment somewhere above that even the most intricately planned books can take years to complete. Some people can write an unplanned story in a very short time, some take longer, and some can write a plan and get their story completed quickly and some can take years just planning alone. The time it takes has no relation to the method you choose, if anything it depends on the speed at which ideas and inspiration jump at you, and the amount of free time you have in which to write. You might be happy to write 24/7, but you still need to eat and sleep, and if you’re not lucky enough to already have all the money you need to live off then you’ll need to work too, so a book can take years to write just because you only ever get an hour or less to write a day. Lord of the Rings took at least 12 years to write and continued to be edited for years after, so I’d think twice before stating the opinion that for a book to be good it must be planned, and that any planned novel will not take long to write. Planned novels can take just as long or longer to write and no level of detailed planning can make it more or less superior to an unplanned book. All it comes down to in the end is the end product: the idea you have and how well it is written.

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Chipped Nails

I didn’t get past the first few sentences because this article is pretentious and stupid. Some people do well with outlines; some don’t. To say everyone “must not” outline is handicapping the way some people are most effective. And to say their works are inferior or “DOA” is condescending and insulting.

But hey, if we’re going to insult people, then I’m free to insult all those non-outliners, right? After all, they’re so stupid they don’t even know their characters before they begin writing and lack basic planning ahead skills. Plus they’re likely to forget ideas they have along the way by not planning where they fit as well as spending a whole lot of time revising and removing and wasting and adding unneeded stuff because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

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Sam

This certainly opened up new perspectives for me. However, from the very first time I write, I didn’t outline, I just write and let whatever it is lead me on.

But, I’ve became stuck for 4 times straight where I simply can’t go on. Then, I’ve tried outlining and this time I finished the first draft after two outlines where I fail on the first.

It might not suits me or something but outlining seems to work better for me.

Alas, this is just my humble opinion. Happy writing!

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Mike

OMG, this is horrible.
You might write some romance without outlining – and I presume all those ‘published’ writers above mainly self-publish romance – but I’d like to see you write thrillers or crime without outlining.
Yeah, you can. That’s why Amazon is full of crappy stories.

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B

Very interesting. I shall remember the points from this as I proceed to plan the F out of my novel.

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Magic Numbers

People may have diverse needs in terms of writing. A simple short story requires different mechanics than a series of 1100 page novels. Feature films vs. TV Show. You may even need a step in front of outlining if your scenarios are complex. For me, writing prose is the very last step. If i start from there, it’s hopeless…..unless I write backwards (which is another story altogether.)

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Denidekemet

I am gonna be honest. Just picking a pen and marking the paper won’t do much to help you deliver or kill your characters. I am for the idea that work should be planned but then the existence of the plan do not limit creativity, you could change the direction of the story whenever you feel like. I can’t imagine how a piece without objectives will turnout to be. I could be wrong; I have been rejected a number of times.

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David Graham Edwards

The people commenting here seem to be from two completely separate and irreconcilable camps.

There are the Outliners, who swear up and down that to fail to outline is to invite pain and suffering; that refusing to outline is being lazy and avoiding work; that novels will suffer from aimless writing and extensive rewrites due to the lack of an outline.

Then there are the Non-Outliners, who find that once you’ve written an outline, you’ve sucked all the fun out of writing and that at this point the narrative is just transcribing and expanding upon something that’s already been created. Rigid, immutable outlines offer no surprises, leave no room for creativity or inspiration, and turn the work of writing into mindless drudgery.

Don’t you dare try to convince somebody from one camp or the other to change their mind. Because clearly whoever is on the opposing side is an idiot.

Isn’t it just possible that both perspectives can work quite well for different people? Or, conversely, the same people when working on different kinds of projects? I can certainly see the benefits of both! A complex novel with many different locales, a large group of characters with varying motives, and a plot that needs to proceed in a particular fashion would absolutely benefit from an outline. If you’re writing a more straightforward story about boy-meets-girl, then you already know the basics (they meet, they fall in love, they get pulled apart, they’re reunited and make with the kissy-kissy) and may feel free to improvise the details, because it’s all window dressing for the main event.

I’m a published author and I’ve used both approaches. Yes, there are benefits AND disadvantages to both methods. Of course, it’s never quite so black-and-white. Sometimes you need a loose, rough outline that covers only the broad strokes. Major story events are still set in stone, but you still have the freedom to play around with, invent, and discover new minor moments and characters and twists.

I’m appaled, but not particularly surprised, at the people commenting here who are lunching at each other’s throats just for having an opposing point of view. Writing a novel is a very personal affair. It requires you to rip out a piece of your heart and show it to the world. The manner in which you may choose to do this is entirely of your own choosing. What works for one person may not work for another at all.

The only time you’re doing it wrong is if you get completely and inexorably stuck. If you’re making it up as you go and you can’t figure out what happens next, spend some time and think about where you want the story to go. If you’re stuck on the outline because you don’t want to commit to a single story path, then go ahead and fly blind for a bit and see where it takes you! You may surprise yourself.

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Katie

I see a lot of assertive comments on the importance of outlining. While I appreciate the insight, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to push your ideals on the subject down others throats. As others in this thread have said: It doesn’t work for everybody. I can only write by discovery, which means sitting down and writing my story with nothing more than ideas to guide me. When I try to outline, my brain becomes and open space of nothingness. When I write, my characters guide me to multiple ideas that branch my story into several directions in which I must choose from.

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Bryan Fagan

It all comes down to the individual. If outlining works do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. I was a pantser and it didn’t work out but outlining does. But that’s just me. A person new to this writing thing will be overwhelmed by all the advice. It’s right up there with dating advice. Yes, it’s to much. Do what works. You will make mistakes like I did and slowly you will figure it out. Most of all, write.

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Tom Gould

I am currently working on a novel which is about two contemporary writers trying to solve a historical murder mystery. What I find works for me is to get the outline of the story in your head so you have a beginning middle and end and then fill in the pieces in between. I would argue that you should think at least, one to two chapters ahead so you should know what will happen next. Like someone said earlier don’t worry about what you read being disjointed that is what editing is for afterwards. But if you always have your end result you then have to think ten pages ahead as how to get to it. I knew what was going to happen in the chapter that I wrote today of my current project and I now know how it is going to end and I have identified the culprit in the murder mystery. Because I am writing a parallel story I know the name of the culprit but the characters are yet to identify him themselves. So if you know the end result yourself filling in the dots in between can be relatively easy, continuity is the most important factor and having Aspergers Syndrome I sometimes struggle with that. Although that is what editing is for.

Please check out my book ‘The Hartnetts’ at Amazon.com
Tom

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Alice Wickham

Good advice, I was writing a fine piece of comedy and got a bit stuck so I started to outline it and plot it chapter by chapter, the creative juice then stopped flowing, not making that mistake this time around, and it’s lots more fun too

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