Sunday, March 20, 2011

To Outline or Not?

By Mark W. Danielson

To outline, or not is a question frequently asked at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. The answer not only differs between authors, it depends on whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. SF Writer's Conference speakers repeatedly emphasized that nonfiction writers must use outlines. This makes sense because their facts must be accurate, sequential, and have relevance. To properly convey a topic, nonfiction builds like a math problem. I’m no mathematician, but I do understand that X times Y equals Z. In writing, if the reader doesn’t understand the X or the Y, they will never come up with Z.

In fiction, the principles remain the same except that fiction allows more twists and turns. Because fiction writing is inventive, many authors feel an outline will stifle their creative thoughts. But then you have James Patterson, one of the best outliners in the business, who cannot work without them because he has others writing his stories for him. The more detailed an outline, the easier it is for Patterson’s co-writers to mimic his thoughts. But what about the writers who have had stories gelling in their heads for months or years, and when he/she finally sits down at the computer, their stories flow like molasses? Judging from the raised hands I saw at the SF Writer’s Conference, it seems the majority of fiction writers prefer shooting from their hips than using outlines.

The “pro” of no outlining is the freedom to write uninhibited. The “con” of no outlining is authors must go back and create their outline to ensure everything flows, makes sense, and summarizes their story for queries and book descriptions. In this regard, outlining seems inescapable. So, for the benefit of other writers, let’s take a poll. How many draft their novels using outlines, how many don’t, and why?


Cozy in Texas said...

I do a rough outline before I start and then a more thorough one as I write so that it's easy to move things around if I need to change the story line. Jeffrey Deaver says he once did a 150 page outline!

Mark W. Danielson said...

I get a sense that the more well-known authors tend to be sticklers for detailed outlines. I'm leaning in that direction for my next novel because there are some technical aspects that must be absolutely correct. I'm not sure I'll do a 150 page outline, but I wouldn't be surprised if Patterson's are that long for each of his stories.

Morgan Mandel said...

I have an idea, a vague sense of the beginning, not much of an idea of the middle, and kind of know the ending. It's a mystery to me how it all gets together until after it's done and I fine tune it all.

I do, however, keep a cheat sheet with details about the characters and settings which I do refer to.

Morgan Mandel

Mark W. Danielson said...

Morgan, I'm with you. So far, that's how I've done it for 17 or 18 novels, but I may explore more outlining in the future.

Earl Staggs said...

Mark, I once resolved to work from an outline and stuck with it religiously -- for all of five minutes. That makes me a certified pantser, I'm afraid. I work from a general plan in my mind, but find it hard to stick even with that. I know what I need to happen in the story, but how it happens is a mystery until I begin writing it. Each scene is a natural progression from the previous one and what I need to happen happens, but how it happens is most often a surprise until I write it. For me, that's the fun of writing.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I'm with you, Earl. Imagine writing the story about the big fish that got away. In outline form, the fish is seven inches long, but by the end of our non-outlined story, it's grown to three feet. And that's what makes it fun.