Ask the Editor: How Can I Force Myself to Use an Outline?

Dear Alex,
After “pantsing” my way through a NaNoWriMo novel, the entire thing is a hot mess. I’m afraid it’s hopeless—no amount of editing can fix it. Moving on. For my next novel, I want to become a “plotter” and actually use an outline. The problem is, I hate the thought of an outline. I can never stick to one, so why should go through all that work for something that I’m going to abandon halfway through?
–Jason

Hi Jason,

Congratulations on finishing NaNoWriMo! Hot mess or no, writing 50k in a month is something you should be proud of. It seems like participating in National Novel Writing Month has taught you some valuable skills, and made you eager to try again with a new story idea.

However, I worry that you’re thinking of an outline as a rigid document. Perhaps you’re thinking of the kind of outlines we wrote for our student papers, with Roman Numerals and indented numbers—the kind of outline you got graded on.

But a fiction outline is for your eyes only. It doesn’t have to be a color-coded spreadsheet with different fonts for each point of view character. You can scribble scene ideas on index cards and then move them around until you find an order you like. You can make a “mind map” with arrows pointing to the relationship between events. You can jot ideas in a notebook as they come to you. Bullet points are fine. In fact, the looser the outline, the better.

As authors, we get very attached to our first ideas, visualizing exciting scenes on a very granular level. But what comes in the first flash of inspiration might not be the best thing for our novel-in-progress. When you’re crafting your outline, only concentrate on what happens. Leave the how for later.

For example, let’s say that at the midpoint of your outline, your hero and heroine—we’ll call them Abid and Josephine—are trapped in a dungeon. You want them to escape the dungeon and have a chase through the marketplace before boarding a boat. Way back when you first thought of this story idea, you visualized this scene perfectly, including Abid charming the guard while Josephine steals the keys. But when the time comes to actually write the scene, none of it fits. Abid isn’t the guard’s type, the guard doesn’t carry the keys, you’ve put the marketplace on the other side of the city, and they’re nowhere near a port.

Does this mean your outline is useless? No. It means your outline was too detailed. Instead of writing all this at the outset, your outline should simply say, “Abid and Josephine escape the dungeon.” This gives you the flexibility to write the best scene, not the first scene you thought of.

But what if Abid and Josephine never end up in that dungeon at all? What if your novel took a different turn and instead, the midpoint scene finds them on trial in the king’s court, having to prove their innocence? Does this mean you’ve “abandoned” your outline?

Here is where some writers get into trouble. They beat themselves up, asking “why can’t I stick to an outline?” Or even worse, “Why can’t I write a decent outline in the first place?” But there’s a better question to ask here. “How can I change my outline to work for me?” An outline is never one-and-done. And changing things halfway through doesn’t mean the original outline was useless. It got you started. It helped you write your first few chapters until the story got up to speed and took on a life of its own.

An outline shouldn’t be a cage to trap your muse in. It should be a comfortable house where your muse has everything she needs. If something isn’t working, go ahead and open the windows, put on a fresh coat of paint, or even knock down some walls. Modifying is not the same as abandoning.

At the end of the day, you might decide you’re happier as a pantser, and you’d rather spend your time revising your “hot mess” of a novel than trying to craft an outline. That’s okay! We all write differently. But I’m glad you’re willing to experiment with this new way of writing, to see if it works for you.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist which is out now.

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