I’m on a tangent lately. Every writer has his or her own unique way of approaching the process of writing. Despite what a few people might think (TLWWHMG), I don’t believe there is only one way to write a book. For every writer, there is a unique system or approach to achieving the finished product. However, there are a few things I know after doing this for better than 15 years, and one of them is that many writers (not all!) would benefit by creating an outline of their story before sitting down to hammer out the whole thing.
I look at it like this – when you’re young, it’s cool to hop in the car, fill up the tank, and just see where you wind up. But eventually, winding up in the desert with nothing but snow gear isn’t fun anymore. Having a destination and a road map makes things much easier, not to mention much more productive in the long run.
True story time: Early on in my writing, I didn’t believe in creating outlines. I believed I did my best work by sitting down and just letting everything flow. I began working on a story that had a great premise, and I was so excited to sit down each day and just write. I was hours and hours into the story, and it had reach 85 pages. I was thrilled with my progress. My dear friend Carol Lynch Williams agreed to take a look at what I had done, so I sent her a copy of the story. A few days later, she sent me an email and basically said, “You have no plot.” I know those weren’t her exact words, but that was general concept. Essentially what she told me was that I had characters wandering all over the place, but it was really not clear where they were going.
I was so disheartened that I stuck that story in a file and never went back to it. It would have been easy to give up. It would have been tempting to say Carol didn’t know what the heck she was talking about (except at that point, she had more than 20 published titles, so it was a bit hard to argue with her), and it would have been comforting to say I was going to keep doing things my own way. The end result of that, of course, would have been that I never published anything. I believe that.
Instead, I asked every writer I knew (which wasn’t a whole lot, but I did know some) what process he or she used to keep story on track. The majority of them said they created an outline first. many confessed that the outline was subject to change during the writing process, but they started with something so that they knew where they were going and they would know when they had arrived.
Logic – WHOA – go figure!
Now, when I sit down to work on a story, there are two steps I must (must for me, and only for me) follow before I commit time and energy: first, I make a lot of notes about the character and the conflict to make sure that the story holds my interest. Second, I create a rough outline of the story. I figure out what the beginning, middle, and end might be, then I fill in a few details about the conflict, other characters, and the resolution to the problem. I don’t need all the details, I just need a basic road map that shows me the highlights of the journey I want to go on with these characters.
Once these two needs have been met, I can proceed to bring this new world to life. Undoubtedly, things will change along the way. My writing partner Jared Anderson and I have experienced that repeatedly in the book we are working on together, tentatively titled An Evil Heart. We have created our road map, then gone back in to create more extensive outlines of the chapters. But despite our best plans, we always find reasons that we need to deviate from the outline to accommodate needs that arise in the story. For example, in our original outline, the antagonist – a narcissistic serial killer named Sterling – would die in the end at the hands of my character – a young woman named Brenna. However, we ultimately decided that it would be more frightening and satisfying if we left his death unconfirmed, maybe even hinting at his survival. This requires several changes to the outline, but these are easier to accomplish given that we already knew what it would take to get to that point.
Another benefit of the outline is that it keeps your story on track. Once you settle on the key elements of the plot, it’s easier to stay focused on keeping the story moving forward instead of recovering from side trips and off ramps that have sprung up along the way.
Many writers resist using an outline because they are afraid it will cost them too much time and keep them from getting to the thing they love most – creating story. When you incorporate an outline into your writing, you find you actually save time rather waste time, and really, you’re creating a more solid story as a result. Your outline doesn’t have to be elaborate or detailed, but you should take some time to think of the central conflict, how it gets resolved, and what the final outcome will be. You can add, or omit, any other detail you want.
The bottom line to this process is that it is a tool, just like any of the many other varied tools available to a writer. You can use it, ignore it, try it out, disregard it, abuse it, or pound the nail into the wall with your forehead instead of a hammer – your choice. Every writer finds his or her own way, but if you can make that way a little easier, isn’t it worth trying?