Writer Wednesday: Outlines

My typical outline
My typical outline

Every semester I have students who come to me with trembling lower lips and big cow eyes, who express amazement that they got such a bad grade on their paper. “All my teachers have said I write really well!” They’re certain that I am blind to genius. Fortunately, I tell them, I believe in revision (because that’s where the magic happens). Then I explain what’s wrong with their very well-written essay:

The structure is a mess.

Then I tell them how important it is to outline. They get that pinched look on their faces then and I have to explain further.

When I say ‘outline’ I don’t mean that rigid thing we’re taught to use with the Roman numeral one, capital A, Arabic number one, small a and so forth. I have written several books and every single one started with a hand written-outline. Rarely do they ever have the formality of the traditional outline. Sometimes they’re a real mess by the time I’m done sketching them out, but useful nonetheless.

You need a map.

It is one of the best time savers around. If you tend to be a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ you may resist the outline as a collar on creativity. It’s not. It’s your map. If you want to write something fairly quickly (even if you’re not intending to write a novel in three days) it’s the biggest time saver to know where you are going. I can see the difference in projects where I just begin to ramble on an idea and those where I know where I’m going. Sheer inventiveness loses steam as the project gets bigger: there are too many threads to keep weaving, too many details to keep track of while writing new ones.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
~ E. L. Doctorow

But why drive only at night? An outline gives you a map to follow; it need be only as detailed as is useful. That may take some work, but it’s worthwhile. With Pelzmantel, I had the first line, the last line, and some episodes in between. It took me almost five years to write (admittedly, I was writing my dissertation at the same time). Owl Stretching took sixteen months. Chastity Flame took ten weeks. The sequel, Lust Situation, took much less.

I did get faster at writing, but I learned to outline much better. You need to know the shape of the story. Most downtime in writing is figuring out what happens next. If you have an idea of where it’s going, that becomes less of a problem (and less stressful). I got stuck in Pelz when I couldn’t figure out how to get from her birth to her adolescence, but I knew that’s where I needed to be. The solution ended up being so simple:

Fifteen years passed…

You need to stay alive to the story; don’t stick slavishly to your outline. Characters reveal new facets, you think of even better ways to make your characters suffer. The map may change. But it’s much easier to alter your journey when you know where you are heading.

Otherwise you may end up going in circles.



Don’t forget, I’m going to be talking about these Writer Wednesday topics at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers on March 25th at 7pm. It would be great to see you there.

Hey, there’s another contest for So It Goes: how are your photoshopping skills?


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    I appreciate your posts. – John Howell

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