My process for creating a novel has evolved over the last four years. When I wrote my first novel, I simply started writing. I had a very general outline in my head, and I wrote to that outline, which, ironically, I followed very closely, but anyone who outlines novels would have questioned whether I really outlined it at all. As I’ve written each successive novel, my planning has evolved significantly, and as I’ve started my current project, I’ve taken the outlining to a whole new level. My hope is that this will help me be more efficient and effective in the creation process and help me reduce the amount of time I have to spend editing and re-writing.
Within the writing world, like many things in life, there are two sides to the outlining debate – there are outliners and “by-the-seat-of-the-pantsers.” The outliners swear by the need to outline a novel before you begin, while the pantsers will tell you that outlining squelches the creative process by putting you in a box before you begin. At any writing conference, you can find fervent adherents arguing about each approach, but I tend to agree more with the outliners because I don’t believe outlining a novel boxes you in at all. In my most recent novel, I had outlined a different story than what actually resulted. About halfway through I decided to take the story in a different direction and went off the rails, so to speak. The outline didn’t inhibit my creativity. I simply adjusted the outline as I saw fit.
No matter what approach you prefer, you need an idea of where you’re going with a story. A rambling mess is generally not what most writers want after they spend months composing a novel. I find outlining keeps me disciplined and puts a structure in place that helps me stay on point. For my current project, I’m taking outlining a step further by going down to the scene level in each chapter because I have a tendency to get long-winded, and I want to make sure my chapters are crisp and move the story forward in a way that the reader enjoys. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much I love a story if the readers can’t put it together in their heads. Outlining keeps my story focused.
There are two parts to my outline – the chapter summary and the scene list. I want to make it something that I can quickly reference during the writing process, so I don’t make the outline lengthy. For example, here’s the summary of my first chapter from Grace of God:
Miracle – A flight from Chicago to Birmingham crashes on the approach to Birmingham in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The sole survivor is an infant named Grace who is ejected from her father’s arms during the crash and lands in the soft mud in a field near the crash site where she is rescued by one of the first people to arrive.
My scene list is nothing more than one or two key words that show me a path through each chapter. I don’t want to get fancy; I just want to stay on point. Here’s the scene list for the first chapter:
Again, I’m don’t want a lot of superfluous verbiage in my outline. It’s a quick reference document, not a synopsis of my novel. The scene list also gives me a good overview of the novel so that I can see how it all fits together, sort of like pieces of a puzzle. If something seems off kilter, I can fix it at this point rather than waiting until I write the story and realize that something doesn’t fit.
In no way does this inhibit my creativity, despite what the pantsers may say. I can change at any time. If I get a new idea halfway through, I can revise the outline and go in a new direction. I actually find that the outlining process helps my creativity because I can write freely without worrying how my output fits into the overall story. I know where I’m going at all times, and there’s freedom in that.
That being said, outlining may not work for everyone. There’s rarely just one way to accomplish something. I have a process that works for me for the reasons stated above, but I’m sure that any number of writers could refute this approach and present their own, sans outline. Nevertheless, if this approach appeals to you or helps you write, then my sharing it is not in vain. Happy writing!