Currently Reading:

Do This! Don't Do That! To Outline or Not: That Is The Question

October 16, 2013 Outlining, Writing 14 Comments

Outline GettyImages_dv1396071

By Randy Susan Meyers

Advice to writers is a funny thing (I’ve had my share of taking and giving) and when I have the opportunity (hubris?) to offer my opinions, I try to remember to preface my words with “this is what works for me.”

Oppositional advice can spin one’s head around. It often all sounds good, something that struck me as I caught up with recent (paper) issues of The Writer, reading first, in the November issue, the thoughts (on writing a novel) of Andre Dubus III, New York Times bestselling author:

Dream, dream, dream it though. Write more with your body and less with your head. Don’t think a story through, don’t think it out. The danger of thinking it through is that most of us are not smart enough to do it that way. We have to go one moment at a time.” 

Later in the article, he included in his ‘advice to new writers,’  “Do not outline stories and do not think about stories. Find one true sentence at a time, one detail at a time.”

Dubus teaches writing; he frowns on writer’s groups. (Oh no, am I diluting my work?) He ‘drifts into dream-like silence,’ and has low-tech habits to become more intimate with his characters.

Also in November’s issue, we have Amor Towles, author of NYT Bestselling Rules of Civility, in an interview, referencing a novel that was a ‘dud’:

. . .because he had not carefully out outlined in advance, Towles knew his unpublished novel set in Russia had little chance of success. He approached his next book with a fresh strategy, allotting himself 52 weeks to write a 26-chapter novel.

On not waiting for inspiration and perseverance, Towles says:

“ . . . eventually you can get lost in the process and creative function takes over.”

October’s issue of The Writer offers “6 reasons a workshop jolts your writing.” (Ah, sweet relief, I can remain with my much-loved writing group.)

Also in the October issue is Bram Stoker award winner Jonathan Maberry, who stresses the need to “stop mythologizing the life of a writer. Don’t wait for the must to whisper in your ear . . . A writer is no different that a plumber, a landscaper or a dental hygienist.”

I believe in the power of advice. (My “Homemade MFA” was based on reading shelves of book on writing.) But, though there are some absolutes (always end a sentence with some form of punctuation would seem a good rule) one must find the balance between advice that bewilders or makes one feel less senseless and that which leaves us enriched. Perhaps this is also the danger of taking writing courses with a teacher who expounds on a one-way-to-paradise approach. Imitation is not always the wisest course. Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, and Marcel Proust, according to Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, “all wrote worked in bed, surrounded by a cocoon of food, alcohol and cigarettes.”

However, those habits were not the fount of their success.

Stephen King, often used as gold standard for the not-outlining group, says he plots in advance “as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Aaron Hamburger began a January 2013 essay in the New York Times online “Opinionater” with the words, “In my experience, one of the surest ways to kill the creative energy of a work of fiction at its inception is with an outline.” (He believes in reverse outlining.)

Had I read that when as I settled into my first published novel I might still be floundering. (Although I do reverse outline—but I also do it in forward.) For me, an outline (and everyone has a different idea of what constitutes an outline—mine is formulating one third of a book at a time) provides the freedom to be as creative as I want. If I go ‘off-outline,’ that’s okay, but I have my security blanket.

Justin Cronin says “There’s an outline for each of the books that I adhere to pretty closely, but I’m not averse to taking it in a new direction, as long as I can get it back to where I need it to go.”

Khaled Hosseini states “I don’t outline at all; I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way.

R. L. Stine swears “If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block. I do a complete chapter by chapter outline.”

Jeffrey Deaver is pro-outline: “The outline is 95 percent of the book. Then I sit down and write, and that’s the easy part.”

Diane Galbadon is not: “I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them. I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line.

The head spins, but my guess is that few writers truly fit into a rigid guideline:

I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write. J. K. Rowling 

Perhaps the ‘outlining debate’ was best answered by Joseph Finder, who wrote: 

Outline or not?

This is the question I get most of all, whether by e-mail or at conferences: Do you outline or not?

It’s a good and important question, and here’s the thing: There’s no Right Answer. All of us writers make up our own rules as we go along. There’s no one way to do it.’

Except perhaps for the recent advice from Between The Margins own Juliette Fay, who wrested me from a book stymie by advising something that will always live with me:

So get your whiny hiney in that chair and produce some verbiage, you big baby.

The only magic rule to which we must all adhere.







Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Thanks, Randy.
    I’m relieved to know that there is no clear answer to this one….

  2. Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

    Some of the best advice I ever got was to “reverse outline” midway through writing a book. Not surprisingly, it came from Randy Susan Meyers! And this trick made all the difference on the novel I just turned in. Such wise words…

  3. Randy, Thanks for shooting some holes in the entire industry of writing advice with your own good humor and good advice, too. How do you do that? It’s like talking to someone wiser and more compassionate than I manage to be. Thank you!

  4. Kim Triedman says:

    Hi Randy. I just looked up what a reverse outline is. It terrified me, and I’m not even working on a novel! I think you’re absolutely right — there are no wrong answers when it comes to so many decisions of craft, and no right ones. What matters most is what allows you to find your own best way, whatever that happens to be. Though I’m much more of a “don’t plan/don’t plot” kind of writer, I appreciate that I could no more assert this as a novel-writing imperative than I could make myself work from an outline — reverse or otherwise.

    • Kim, I think you’ve given me an idea for my next post. Since I’m such a fan of reverse outlining (rah! rah!) and have been doing it since book 1 (actually, first published book) I can attest to it’s value . . . for me. It’s not terrifying at all; in fact, it’s alot more fun that outlining!

  5. I love Joseph Finder’s answer (and am so surprised that it’s his most frequent question!). I seem to outline (or not) differently with each project. Now I’m going to have to try some reverse outlining…as it’s the only way of all discussed possibilities that I haven’t tried!

  6. Randy, thanks for this wrap up. I write a journal of the book while I’m writing the book. This means that every day when I start, I open the journal first and talk myself into where the book is going next. It makes me feel as if I have a companion for the journey. I also do a file called Facts Unfolding which helps me remember what my reader knows when. This is especially important, I find, for memoir writing which is what I’m working on now.

  7. Cindy Richard says:

    It is interesting how much this topic comes up – and how often people feel like they are doing it the wrong way and ruining their writing project. The one thing that made me settle down on one side of the line once and for all was reading the book “Creative You” that talks about creativity and how it is linked to your personality type. Since I knew my Myers Briggs type, I read my section first, and it emphatically stated that I think best when I outline. I looked up form the book with a satisfied, goofy grin and thought “I KNEW IT”. Many writers seem to fall into the camp of not outlining, and it can make people who do outline feel like there is something wrong with their process when more than likely it is just a function of how you think best – are you a big picture person who needs to know most of what is involved in advance (i.e. a planner) or a person who hones in on specifics and spans outward (i.e. a pantser). It seems like I read all of the same articles you mentioned in your piece, so I was glad to hear you were puzzling over this too. Thanks for laying this out in such a concise way and reaffirming that people should do what works for them.

    • Cindy, I haven’t taken the Myers Brigg–I’ll do it now–but I suspect we have some similar letters. And I will look for “Creative You.” I assume there are always many ways to get there . . . wherever that ‘there’ may be, so why do some insist one way is better? I am with you. Outlining. And using my highlighters.

Comment on this Article:

Recent Posts

Author Spotlight

Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers
The dark drama of Randy Susan Meyers’ debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, published by St. Martins Press in January 2010, is informed by her years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence. She was raised by books, in Brooklyn, where she could walk to the library daily. Each book she read added to her sense of who she could be in this world. Reading In Cold Blood at too tender an age assured that she’d never stay alone in a country house. Biographies of women like Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackwell opened doors to another world and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn taught her faith in the future. Each time she read it, she was struck anew by how the author Betty Smith knew so much and dared to write it. Read Full