by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
What doesn’t matter about plotting? It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as it works for you.
If what you’re doing isn’t working, have you ever tried something else?
I’ve always been a very happy organic writer/pantster. I made up my mysteries as I went along. My agent, frankly, was rather horrified. I’ve also had an editor or two who were very surprised that I don’t outline. I had a feeling that many traditionally published, prolific writers outline their books and that I was the exception and not the rule.
I have one editor who requires an outline for approval. I had a tremendous problem delivering her an outline at first. The first outline was 24 pages long. My poor editor. But at first, that’s the only way I could do them. If I had to write an outline, I was going all the way with it…outlining every scene.
The second outline went a lot better. I gave her three page “big picture” of the story. I left out the minor details and just hit the high points: suspects, killer, and how my hook (it’s a quilting mystery series) featured into the book.
The third outline was much like the second for this editor. The difference was that I deviated from it nearly completely. Once I started writing the story, it took off into a different direction. Wrapped up in the story, I neglected to tell my editor about my deviation, which caused a bit of a problem for an editorial meeting she was in and a cover meeting. Ugh. I quickly filled her in and sent her the (unfinished) manuscript (which I usually hate doing because at that point I’ve done zero editing…but it was better than sending my long-suffering editor in blind to various conferences.)
So I’ve had some outlining background. And I always hated coming up with these outlines. But—I never ran into story issues when I’ve outlined. I might go off my outline, but I never end up with a huge plot hole, a mess of a beginning, or a poorly paced book.
On the other hand, when I haven’t outlined, I’ve run into a big problem about 30% of the time. Not all the time. But enough to slow me down (and I do hate being inefficient!)
I just had a terrible first draft experience on a book I made up as I went along. Bad enough that I’m outlining the novel I’m about to start writing. But I’m not excited about this—I’m simply thinking that maybe it’s become a necessary evil for me.
What I dislike about outlines:
I feel like the time spent writing them is better spent writing the story, promoting another book, or some other writing-related task. This almost embarrasses me to even admit…yes, I know outlining counts as writing. But that’s how I feel about it.
I feel that outlines have a tendency to confine my creativity.
I don’t like picking the murderer until the end of the story.
I don’t like picking names until I get to know new characters better.
Outlines remind me of the more unpleasant assignments in my English classes.
Outlining doesn’t come particularly naturally to me.
I hate to admit this, too, but…I can get bored with what I’m writing when I outline because I’m skipping the process of discovery and brainstorming. Those are the most fun parts for me.
Pros of outlining
I always know what I’m going to write (I’ve always known what I was going to write the following day, even as an organic writer. But with an outline, I know what I’ll write even after that.
I can immediately tell if the story I intend to write will work or not. I can spot a bloated beginning, a saggy middle, and a bad ending right off the bat.
I can tell if my original pick for murderer will work or not.
I can keep better track of various subplots, red herrings, clues, suspects, and other elements.
Where I’ve made my peace with outlines:
I allow myself to deviate if the story will benefit.
I don’t force myself to pick character names for the outline if I don’t immediately have a name that I like. I put in AA or BB instead.
I brainstorm lots of possibilities on a separate document before I start my outline. I keep the brainstormed ideas and refer to them in case I start running dry when following my outline.
So…this is where I am now. Waffling back and forth between outlining and skipping it. Again, if you’ve got a method that works for you—keep it. I’m experimenting only because my method is suddenly letting me down a little.
Do you outline? Why or why not?