Stop! Don't Outline Your Novel!
I’ve read plenty of advice about novel writing and a lot of writers suggest you should write an outline for your novel before you start writing it. What’s an outline? It’s a complete chapter by chapter breakdown of your novel, a map you can keep to. The idea is you’ll never get lost where you are and the process of writing the novel is easier. I started a MasterClass on writing with James Patterson who gives this advice. It’s essential, he tells you. I don’t think they are, but in Patterson’s case, who employs other writers to write his stories, outlines are a must. He simply gives the other writer the task of writing the novel to his plan, so it doesn’t matter if all his time is taken up on outlines. He could probably write an outline a month and in the time it should take to write a novel, he’s got three writers ready to go. Now you know why he’s so prolific.
There’s no right or wrong advice when writing and you should use what works for you, but I’m going to tell you why I think you shouldn’t bother with outlines.
Top Reasons Why Not to Outline
1. They take too long to write. As soon as you’ve got the idea of the novel in your head, why spend all that time plotting out a detailed outline when you can start writing it? You’ll probably spend a few weeks perfecting this outline when you could’ve been 40,000 words into the actual writing. Are you using an outline as an excuse not to start the mammoth task of writing?
2. They take the fun out of writing. When I write, I want to be surprised by the plot as I go along. Quite often I’m excited by a plot twist I hadn’t thought of because the story evolves as I go. If I had it all mapped out for me, knowing what’s going to happen and when, I’m not as fully engaged in the process and my motivation wanes. The reader’s interest will, too.
3. Outlines don’t allow you to be flexible with your plot. You’ll not want to stray from the outline, because you’ve already perfected the plot before starting. One change of a main plot point can take you off course from your outline. Guess what you’ll have to do then? Stop writing the novel and go back to revise the outline.
4. If you use my 25/50/25 model to structure your novel, discussed here, you’ll have a rough idea of where you need to be in your novel without a detailed breakdown of each chapter. If you know how many words your novel should be, based on the genre you’re writing, you will know if you need to start wrapping up the beginning section, or if you’re not getting to the end quick enough.
5. They are an excuse to avoid starting the real work. No one likes staring at a blank page when starting a novel and many people do everything they can to avoid this by finding other things to do. Dive in and get writing instead.
Those are the reasons I don’t use outlines, but there are advantages to them. If you’ve planned the novel out in advance, you’ll have less rewrites to do. I’m going to argue against this, because you can still think of a better way of doing something once you’ve finished writing the first draft, even if you’ve completed an outline. If you’re spending 3 months or more writing the novel, you’re bound to come up with new ideas, outline or no outline.
How much do I plan a novel before I start? First, I come up with the idea of what the novel is going to be about. I’ll spend a few days thinking about this, deciding on the main characters who would be good to tell the story. I also want to know a rough idea of how the novel will end, though it’s not set in stone. If I can’t think of an ending at this stage, then I know the novel will run out of steam after 25,000 words because the idea wasn’t strong enough to let me think of an ending.
Do I plan out all the characters and write notes and backstories? Hell, no. My characters evolve as they go along, the story forming them as it develops. My planning stage is all in my head as I picture a character and decide on what sort of person they will be. Like outlines, I find character notes will take the flexibility away and I like my characters to surprise me, just like the plot. If as a writer I’m not engaged, I don’t think the reader will be. Long walks are perfect for imagining the scenes and characters.
So that’s why I think outlines are a waste of time. They might work well for some writers, particularly Patterson, but they’re not for me. Perhaps you feel guilty for not planning out your novel with an outline? Don’t! After taking Patterson’s MasterClass, I began worrying that I didn’t outline. When I tried outlining, I spent a month getting bored and didn’t enjoy it. That novel didn’t even get started, despite a strong idea and an idea of how to end it!
Personal Writing Tips
1. Know how many words your novel will be.
2. Use structure to understand where you are.
3. When you write your second draft, realise it’s the magic where you make your readers think you knew what you were doing all along.
4. Don’t delay too long starting your novel. You’ve got thousands of words to get writing, so strike while you’re enthusiastic.
That’s my own personal take on outlines and why you shouldn’t bother. If you disagree with me and think outlines are essential, let me know in the comments. Remember: no one has the correct advice and you should use what works for you. Just don’t feel bad if you never outline your novels. I stopped feeling bad about this ages ago when I realised I can write without the safety net.
Kevin Grover is an indie author of supernatural thrillers. His books are on Amazon and his website, Indie Bookshelf, shares various tips and experiences about his indie career.