The Writing That Comes Before All the Writing: On Outlining

chair in snow

I used to be a dedicated outliner. My outlines for novels would take up dozens and dozens of pages, come with color-coded notes to myself (this has been written and you don’t need to worry about it anymore = blue ; not sure of this, but you’ll come up with something better when you write it = purple ; what the hell do I do here HELP! = red). I’d basically write a paragraph describing every single scene in the book, chapter by chapter, in order, scene by scene by scene, and sometimes getting so inspired that occasionally actual writing would slip in between the bullet points, stray bits of dialogue, lines I wanted to be sure to use. Writing between the lines; writing that felt freed up and loose and full of possibility because it wasn’t “real” writing and I didn’t have to make the sentences sound good. (And, times like that, the sentences often come out sounding good.)

Outlining felt essential to writing a novel because I used to do work-for-hire projects, and in order to get paid I’ve have to turn in an outline before the draft and get it approved so I could start writing. Though I seem to remember outlining my first-ever written novel, Bardo. The 500-page behemoth of a novel didn’t get any plot help from my doing so. But outlining was a method, even then, before I knew how to write a novel: putting down my thoughts in a place where they weren’t threatened and squandered by having to be “real.”

Then I met a moment of what I guess I’d call false confidence. I thought I was at a place with a novel where I didn’t need to outline. Usually I write opening chapters to find the voice, and then stop myself and do a plot outline.

This time I didn’t.

I wrote 17 & Gone without an outline. I kept telling myself the following: You know what will happen. Most of the book will be THIS (it actually wouldn’t be, surprise), so you won’t have to spend time doing THAT (surprise, was I wrong).

At some point, I was so deep into the first draft—the deadline looming menacingly, my future paycheck in hand—that even when I realized I did in fact need to outline because my brain was a chasm of static, lost girls, ominous black vans, bicycle tires, and voices, I’d peek at the calendar and tell myself I just didn’t have time to stop. I had to keep writing, or I’d never reach the deadline. There was NO TIME to outline!

But this is the thing, and I learned this lesson the hard way: Outlining, while taking time away from the official writing that can be put down toward your word count or page count, is not a waste of time at all… It will save time on the “real” writing. It will catch you before you fall into a deep plot hole and can’t claw your way out. It will lead you by the hand through your story. It will save you, in those blank moments of panic, when you doubt everything about yourself as a writer, it will save your life.

Also: Outlining actually is writing, in a way. It’s storytelling. It’s creating. It’s not at all a waste of time—it’s illumination.

And: Outlining is like sketching. It’s not permanent. It can change. It welcomes change. It’s there to give direction, but it never minds being led another way.

Just because you outline doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. I don’t, always. All I know is it helps me get where I’m going because it helps me know where I’m going. And I’m the kind of writer who needs to know there’s an end to that tunnel, or I’ll spend 100 pages inside the tunnel, describing the feel of the rocks in the darkness and you’ll have to shake me awake because I’ve fallen asleep with a pillow made of my shoes.

If I’d outlined 17 & Gone, I am sure it would have taken less time for me to write the first draft. And I have a sneaky suspicion that I wouldn’t have had to do such enormous revisions on the manuscript up until the very last minute… in which I pulled all-nighters to rearrange and rewrite huge chunks of pages the day of deadline and then watched something I hadn’t had a chance to even reread sail off because I’d put myself up against a wall and had no time left.

Outlining would have made that whole process much easier. That’s an understatement, because I don’t want to play the what-if game. I just want to do things differently this time.

I’m not coming on to shout about how everyone must outline their novels before writing. This writing process is so personal, and we all have our own ways of doing it. I think the lesson in this is simply: When you find something that works for you (be it outlining, be it flinging yourself into the dark tunnel and writing ahead without knowing what will come next, i.e., what writers call “pantsing,” which doesn’t make it sound very romantic, but whatever), maybe you should embrace it and keep at it instead of throwing it out the window and thinking you’ve grown beyond it.

I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m spending time outlining. I was talking to a writer friend the other week about outlining, and since he has a background as a screenwriter, he does very involved, very detailed stepped-out outlines, and expects the outline for the novel he’s writing to be about 100 pages.

He said something that inspired me, and I tweeted a paraphrase of it:

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…But I keep thinking about that, and I think that’s why outlining works so well for me. I get attached. I get very attached. When I’m writing the actual draft, I care so much about shaping the words and paragraphs—every line is significant, every word chosen for a reason. I don’t want boring or just functional writing—I write with intention. Even my first drafts. And then it’s very hard to let go of that way of phrasing, that word, that paragraph I spent so much time on, you know?

My drafting method is kind of maddening to me. But when I outline! When I outline, I have free permission to write just plain sentences. The words don’t matter so much as the action, the events, the plot. I’m seeing the bones behind it all. I’m making sure they fit together before I slather them with distracting words.

I guess what I’m doing is writing a rough draft, in a way, describing my novel from a distance as if I were watching it on a film screen. Or… describing what my novel could be… because at this point it can change. It will change. It often does change. I like to revise my outlines throughout the drafting process, making color-coded alterations as I go.

Just like my friend said, I’m allowing myself a place to make mistakes before I get too attached to my words. 

This all makes me think of one of the AWP panels I attended at the conference in Boston this past winter—I’d meant to blog about all the inspiring stuff I came away with, but I ended up just filing it away for myself… sorry for being so selfish and/or lazy. But one of the panels I went to was called “Keeping Track of Your Book,” and was about all the ways that fiction writers chart and keep a hold of their novels while writing them. I was really inspired by what Lan Samantha Chang told us: how she kept a diary for herself during the writing of her novel, a diary that was just as much about the process—if not more—of writing the novel as about the novel itself. She read choice excerpts from her journal, and I saw, too, that this is something I’ve been missing: a connection with myself and only myself as my brain works through the creation of this story. Outlining speaks to that, and blogging used to, but maybe I should go even deeper.

Now me, back to my outline, and maybe a new novel-focused diary… And you, fellow writers, what works for you?

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