Why I Can’t Outline My Novel and Why I Need Your Help

Jennifer Walkup, fellow writer and Twitter peep, blogged yesterday over at Wonderings, Wanderings and Writing about her pantser reform.  It’s true…it can happen…She is now a plotter

This gave me hope as I have struggled with whether or not I should just bear down and bite the outlining bullet, but a few things kept getting in my way.

1.  Outlining = Planning ahead… ===> Did you happen to see that thingy to the right of my blog that says Queen of Random?  Uhm…yeah…it’s there for a reason.

2.  Outlining takes away my ability to let ideas flourish organically.

3.  ……?????  I’m drawing a blank now…

This is a sad list, huh?  Well…it’s all I’ve got and I realize it’s not enough to keep me from actually tackling the task at hand, and even more, these reasons are just excuses.

*First and foremost, being a spontaneous person does not mean you can’t be organized.  I think many pantsers avoid outlining or some other method of structure because they don’t like structure…at least when it comes to the creative part of their brain.  Structure makes them feel as if walls are around their ideas…like limits have been set.

But that’s not really the case.

Writing involves about a billion and one decisions, and planning ahead will narrow those decisions down, giving the writer a less confusing, less wandering path. 

It’s as simple as this….
Would you rather try putting together a 10,000 piece puzzle or a 100 piece puzzle?

And as far as stifling creativity?


I realize that my creativity will still exist within the guidelines I set for the novel.  Things can always change, and if my ideas are channeled, my brain won’t have the focus of a gnat with ADHD. 

Organization does not prevent creativity.  If anything…I think it would promote it.

I’ve said before that outlining is probably a blessing…like building a house…you need plans or you could end up with one giant mess.

I always believed it would make things simpler and easier, but I am stubborn and had to try to do things my way even though I knew my way probably wouldn’t suffice.

I tend to do things backward…act first, think later.  And that’s exactly what I’ve done with this novel.

I do have to say that I’m lucky my current WIP has survived my mishandling and should, with a little TLC, escape unscathed.

AND…thankfully, in the writing world and land of many revisions, it’s okay to take a rough draft and streamline it according to a nice, new, shiny outline.

But…how I do this, I’m not sure.

It may not seem very difficult to all of you brilliant little plotters out there, but it is a HERCULEAN effort for me.

I’ll admit.  I’ve tried plotting on giant posterboards taped together…arcing the story…creating a timeline.  The creation spanned my living room taking up gargantuan amounts of space but that was about all it did.

I’ve also tried the post it note method but that was useless too…my house just ended up looking like a Staples store exploded in it.

And now I come back to my statement about structure.  I like structure when it is sound…foolproof (which is important for me), when there is a precise method, steps to follow. 

Otherwise, I avoid it, because by my definition, structure (especially when outlining) is like a skeleton..it has necessary parts that make it a framework.  (WARNING: this is about to be the WORST explanation ever)  The quadricep has a home on the femur.  Without the femur, I have nowhere to hang my quadricep….and when I sit down and prepare to outline this novel, I realize how many missing parts to the framework there are and it overwhelms me…does that make any sense at all?

I remind myself that writing is not like a mathematical equation….a + b does not always equal c…THE BOOK OF WRITING written by GOD does not exist.

The writing process is a different journey for every writer and I am just figuring mine out…but…in the meanwhile, if you want to leave me tips…a little insight on your own mad skills…please feel free…I am a writer in need today and prefer asking you wonderful readers than Google.

So what about you?  Plotter or Pantser?  If you outline, what is your method? 

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  1. I used to outline furiously. I've actually become more of a "pantser" over time because it's worked pretty well for me on the last two novels.

    When I pants, though – I will never get used to using that as a verb – I still keep a quick-and-dirty outline. For the series I've been working on, especially now that I'm revising, it's usually just one sentence or bullet-point per scene, to remind me of what I'm planning, where I need to go, and what I've already done.

    The WIP I'm working on right now, though, is longer and much more intricate. I have a line-per-scene outline not for the whole novel, but for the high points to try and walk myself through the first 3/4 or so of the book. There are so many characters and so many things that need to happen, that I need to refer to it constantly just because I will completely forget otherwise.

    But there's still a healthy amount of, "You know what be cool right now? Wizards!" going on.

    So I guess I scribble plot notes on my pants as I go?

  2. You hit the nail on the head when you said the writing journey is different for each one of us. Writing loosely was something I used to do when I first started writing. Nowadays, my 'outline' is not something that strangles me, but a tool that keeps me organized.

    While I haven't ever written out what happens for, say 20 chapters. I do know what happens in the next. Knowing what's supposed to happen keeps me from sliding into panic when I don't have a clue where my story is supposed to go.

    To start out, I know the characters and that at least 4 or so big things happen in the story. When I figure out what those incidents are, I can start writing around them. I never know or write down every teensy-tiny detail, but what I do know keeps the story moving forward.

    Hope you find a method that works for you.

  3. Oh man, I wish there was a Book of Writing written by God. It would be so nice to just flip open The Book, read a chapter on outlining or characterization, and follow the instructions. Instead, it's a messy process and we all have to find our own way.

    I'm in insane plotter. I keep whole notebooks filled with ideas and plot points for various novels. I'm wildly creative during the outlining process, going through every possible scenario, jotting down what-ifs, and etc.

    Then it's time to write, and I stick to the outline like glue. That outline–the map–allows me to blast through a rough draft very quickly. I know basically what the story is and where it's going, so I don't have to think everyday about what I'm going to write.

    Spontaneity comes back into the picture in the editing phase. Does this scene really work here, or should it move? Should I rewrite this in another character's voice? What would happen if the villain witnessed this scene personally?

    The end result is usually a story that resembles the outline in tone and overall structure, but not much else. So why do I spend time on the outline? Because without the structure, I can't write the first draft. And that is why I will always be a plotter.