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Planning To Outline Your Novel? Don't

Girl in grass with typewriter

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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