craft, e-publishing, fiction, musings, novel, self-publishing, thoughts, Writing

To Outline, or Not to Outline

Happy Tuesday, Folks.

Today we’re going to be talking about the pros and cons of outlining a novel (in our experience, short stories don’t really necessitate outlines because of their brevity, small cast, and limited time frame).

First of all: what is an outline?

An outline could take many forms. It could be very detailed and long, describing each scene in considerable detail, listing things like the characters involved, the setting, plot points, even, potentially, bits of dialogue. Or it could be short, perhaps a page or less, including only the principal plot points of each chapter, or maybe only the sections/”books”/parts etc. The former is more like a synopsis of the novel, while the latter is more like a general road map. How someone might go about formatting an outline is really up to the individual writer. They might take into account how far along in the story they are, and how much they might use/require an outline.

For full disclosure, we’ll admit right now that we’re pretty new to outlining. In fact, we’ve really only started using one for our ongoing serialization, The Haunting of Kaleb Bell. There are several reasons for this. The first is that this is the first novel we’ve ever written in a serial format. We’re trying to upload two chapters–roughly four thousand words–each week. This requires us to think about future chapters much more than we’ve had to before. Usually, when we’re writing a novel, we have the comfort of knowing that if there’s an incongruity in an earlier chapter, we can fix it during our editing process later on. While we can re-publish chapters in this serialization, there are all sorts of negative consequences that go along with that (not least of which is forcing readers to re-read earlier chapters), so we’re really trying to avoid doing that. This requires us to know, at some level, what’s going to happen. The second reason for the outline is time considerations. Because we’re writing and editing at such a fast pace (at least for us) it’s important for us to know the general direction the story is heading in. An outline helps to keep us on track. Even if we make changes to our outline and story as we go along, it’s been useful to have a guide for where we think we want to go.

The reason we haven’t used outlines before are two-fold.

Reason #1: we didn’t really see the purpose of them. Outlines–when done correctly–are actually pretty time-consuming to make. At least in our experience, when you spend so much time writing one thing, you become incredibly familiar with the characters and the plot. Probably too familiar. But the point is, you don’t really need an outline to remember characteristics of a given character, or what’s going on with the plot of a particular chapter. You spend so much time editing, polishing, and writing, that you know every little quirk of everyone and everything in your story.

Reason #2: we enjoy not knowing where a story is going to go. There’s something…rigid about an outline that, at least in the past, we’ve tried to avoid. This is probably more a reflection of who we are, but when we have an outline, we find it difficult to stray from the ideas we’ve set down before, even if they aren’t right for the novel. Novels are big, complicated things, and while there is always a seed that serves to inspire the story, chances are the initial direction we think that seed will sprout is not the best direction for the story. It evolves and changes over time as we get a better understanding of the characters involved.

So with all of that being said, here are the pros and cons of outlining:

Pros:

  • Provides a useful framework for the direction your story will take.
  • Saves on editing time (in terms of preempting potential incongruities in the text).
  • Saves on writing time (it almost becomes a process like filling-in-the-blank).
  • Helps keep major plot lines, character details, and settings from getting mixed up.
  • Acts as a useful reference during the writing process.
  • Can even help with things like pacing, and spacing out major events in the novel.
  • When writing something on the go, it’s almost an invaluable tool to keep a writer on track.

Cons:

  • Rigidity. Obviously, you can stray from an outline, but that’s going to affect your earlier chapters.
  • It’s time consuming. The actual process of writing a detailed outline, where you’re basically writing a synopsis, requires a significant time investment.
  • If you’re not publishing parts of your book as a serialization, and can simply edit when you have a rough draft, the time investment may not be necessary.
  • Can kill spontaneity. This goes with the rigidity bit, but if you’re like us, and have a difficult time straying from an outline, it can make the writing seem dull, uninspired, and maybe even formulaic.

Other writers, do you outline? Why or why not? Can you think of any pros/cons that we missed? Everyone else: do you ever do outlines for work, school, or anything else? If so, why? If not, why not? Let us know in the comment section. As always, thank you so much for reading,

W & W Sawday

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