A Sideways Look at Outlining

NaNoTime is when everybody is talking about outlining — do you do it, or don’t you do it, and why or why not. A subgenre of the pantser/plotter meme.

For my second year of NaNo, I’m outlining, just as I did last year. The funny thing is that I never outline any of my other stories. What’s the difference? Time constraints. Thirty days doesn’t give me time to think ahead and figure out what’s going to fill the plot holes, how my characters will react to unexpected events and, most important, how the story is going to unfold. Without an outline, I know that I’ll go offcourse, bog down, and wind up with an unfinished mess.

In real life (the rest of the year), I have all the time in the world. If I’m stuck, I just walk away from the story until my unconscious mind has played with it and come up with its own solutions. Then I sit down and start writing again. Repeat as needed. Gift of Blood, my first complete novel, took thirty days. Boundaries, my second novel, took about six months. The Warden will be written in thirty days. The catch is that I put almost a year of preparation into Gift of Blood, including the outline. The Warden has been collecting notes for several months, getting ready for the outline. So, it’s not just the outline that’s critical to getting a novel written. The final outline can’t happen until months of thought have produced a mass of notes to work with.

For a while, I was thinking that maybe if I outlined all my stories, I could get them written in just thirty days. But all the necessary preliminary work means that the total time to a complete novel might not be any less. Still, there’s something to be said for doing a flat-out time-limited run like NaNo. The feeling of achievement I had last year when I ended NaNo with a 70,000 word novel was very different from my thank-god-it’s-done relief when Boundaries was finally finished.
I can look back now and see that if I had put a few months into thinking about Boundaries, and created an outline, I probably could have done the actual writing in much less time. But more important, I wouldn’t have had to do the massive revisions that the finished story required.

Another story, a spinoff of Gift of Blood is about half done. It’s a story I very badly want to finish, but it’s a mess, and every time I look at it, I can’t face trying to untangle it. Now, I know that it’s screaming for an outline, and for the first time since I abandoned it, I feel as if I’ll be able to finish it.

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5 thoughts on “A Sideways Look at Outlining

  1. Curious, I guessed you were more of a panster than an outliner. I outline, though sometimes I just start and I still get to a point where I have to pause and outline the rest to figure out where I am going.

    I also get to some half-finished points at times and it is messy work to get things back on track. Revised outlines help there, too.

    Good luck with NaNo month.

    -Michael
    The Fiction Side: The Storyteller http://mgkizzia.wordpress.com/
    The Non-Fiction Side: Word & Spirit http://michaelkizzia.wordpress.com/

    1. Being a bit of both works for me. Pushing on with the outline does sometimes help when I’m trying to figure out where to go next. And doing an outline is probably the only way I’ll ever be able to rescue my spinoff story. It reached the point where there were too many alternative plot points, and the chronology was just getting more and more messed up.

  2. Thanks for stopping by! I think about process and how it’s publicized a lot, and it is interesting that a lot of it comes from sci-fi corners. Maybe it’s because of the sizable and intimate fan culture that’s usually associated with it.

    I know that a lot of my interest, personally, comes from trying to be a playwright and having a lot of friends in theater. Since theater’s so communal and since there’s no such thing as a true “repeat performance,” the process surrounding the production of a play can be just as important as the play itself.

    Or maybe we’re just nerds. Anyway, I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog. Good luck with the novel!

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