Outlining is for Sissys (and People Who Know How)

It’s quite a while since I’ve written about writing and even longer since I’ve written about my WIP (Work In Progress). In part, that’s because I’ve decided not to talk too  much about the writing process — there are a million blogs about writing and I don’t think I have too much different to offer — but it’s also partly because I’ve been stuck.

For the last four months I’ve been stuck. I’m 33,000 words into my novel. That’s 130 pages. Just over 40% done. In other words, I’m stuck in the muddy middle.

It’s not that I’d lost inspiration. Or passion. Or drive. It’s not that I’d fallen out of love with the story. Or the characters. Or the setting.

I just didn’t know what should happen next.

See, I’m what’s known by those in the business as a “pantser”. That means that, rather than preparing a full outline before I start, I write by the seat of my pants, with no idea what’s going to happen next until the words hit the paper.

I like writing that way. I like being surprised by my characters, and letting the plot develop as I give my characters free rein to act within their personalities, ambitions and abilities.  But sometimes…. sometimes it really sucks.

Like when I get stuck.

For four months I’ve been stuck. I love what I’d written so far. I’ve got a hero, a problem, and a desired outcome. I’ve had the hero attacked and almost killed, and assembled a team of allies around him. The story and characters are all set up and in perfect position for…. something.

I’d even worked out how the story was going to end — I knew what would happen in the final confrontation, who would live and who would die, who would get the girl and who would lose her, and even how the resolution would play out.

I just didn’t know how to get from point A to point B.

“I should outline it,” I said to myself. “That will help.”



I tried various methods. I tried index cards, computer programs, posters, post-it notes, a whiteboard…. Nothing. I couldn’t even put down a decent outline of what I’d already written.

So for four months I’ve done nothing.

Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve done a couple of “novel building exercises” where I’ve written about my characters from unusual perspectives. And I’ve done a lot of thinking. (Did I say that already?)

And then last Friday I had an awesome meeting with my critique partner and fellow writer, Claire. We were talking about a series of books that I’ve been reading and I said, “I loved them but at the same time, they’re the kind of books that left me feeling totally depressed.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because they’re so amazing,” I said. “They’re easy to read, with realistic characters you can fall in love with, and stories that just… Wow. They’re not complicated, there’s no flowery language and not a lot of symbolism or anything, but they’re awesome. They’re good, honest, fun stories. And that’s what I want to write. And reading these books leaves me feeling a bit depressed because I feel like I’ll never be able to create something as awesome as this.”

And do you know what Claire said to me? She said, “Yes, you will.”

There was a whole bunch of reasons and a pep talk attached to that statement, but the overall message was one of absolute, total conviction. Yes, you will. You will create something that people love. You will create stories that people want to read and immerse themselves in and tell their friends about. You will create stories that make other writers feel overjoyed and, at the same time, slightly depressed.

Yes, you will.

I left that meeting with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I had 45 minutes until I had to pick Big Brother up from school, so I sat down in a park nearby, pulled out a pen and a piece of paper, and started to write.

I didn’t write an outline. I just made a list.

I ignored romance sub-plots and emotional overtones and details about the magic system. I ignored character development and angst. I just focused on the plot. And I made a list.

I made a list of everything that had happened so far. Short sentences. One sentence per line.

Then I left a big gap and made a list of everything that I already knew had to happen for the build-up to the final confrontation and the resolution.

When I was finished, I looked at my sheet of paper. I had 22 sentences written down, with a gap between numbers 9 and 10.

Each of the early sentences described, in very basic terms, a chapter I’d already written.

Each of the later sentences described, in very basic terms, a chapter I’d already planned to write.

And I suddenly realised something.

I’d written an outline.

And the solution to my problem was so obvious, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.

Apparently all I need to do to get my characters from point A to point B is to have one of the characters say, “Hey! Let’s go to point B! That would fix everything!”

Yep, after four months of being stuck, it turns out I can fix all my problems with the movie cliché, “Let’s get outta here.”

Thank you, accidental outline.

You’re a lifesaver.




Filed under Writing

21 responses to “Outlining is for Sissys (and People Who Know How)

  1. ava

    So happy for you Jo! 🙂

  2. Dan

    Good for you!

    It’s funny that your solution should involve “Let’s go to point B”, because that’s emblematic of the hybrid pantser-plotter style I find myself falling into.

    I am very much used to making it up as I go, but I’ve realized that I pretty much always have the ending in mind when I start. I know what it looks like, and I usually even have draft language for the climax or denouement in my head. So I know my destination.

    I’m going to New York.

    But when I start off in Austin, I don’t know how I’m going to get there. I simply start going in a northeasterly direction. Eventually I start to see that I can get there by going first to Chicago, so I angle more north and drive towards that point. And usually, before I get to Chicago, I see that Philadelphia would be a good way-point to hit after that. And ultimately, it’s a pedal-to-the-metal open road race from Philly on in to the Big Apple.

    So, it’s sort of an outline, but I figured it out as I went, with barely enough time to reserve a hotel in the big cities.

    • Wow. You’ve just described my exact process.

      Prior to writing my accidental outline (and using your example), I’d reached Chicago and I knew that eventually I’d go from Philadelphia to New York. I just hadn’t figured out how to get from Chicago to Philly. Writing the outline was like looking at a map — I suddenly realised how close I was to joining up the two halves of my trip.

      “Hey,” says Character #1. “Why don’t we go to Philly?”
      “Great idea!” says Character #2.

      Problem solved.

  3. Awesomesauce (sing-song voice please)!!! See? There’s always someone who knows what to say to make it “click.” Mine gets paid $100/hour.

    • I’m so lucky to have such a great friend and co-writer/critiquer to work with. I feel so inspired by her — by her passion and her never-give-up attitude as much as by her support and belief in me and my writing.

  4. With or without an outline, your book is going to be great.

  5. Short points in a list. Yep! That’s all it needs to be! And you can change things around, too. If you change them, it just gets better. I like to think of my outline as draft 1, and my first draft as draft 2, though that makes other writers scratch their heads. Everybody’s still a pantser … everybody pantses (is that a word?) the outline. Good luck with your next patch of words! May they flow!

    • I think “Everybody pantses” should be printed on t-shirts or something.

      I guess if you’ve got a really thorough outline, it is a bit like a first draft. I’m not going to think about it too hard, though. I don’t want my head to explode. 🙂

  6. Some chapters you go into knowing what you’re doing, some you just don’t, and I think the “muddle in the middle” of yours is where most of us run into that wall. I think most writers jump in with a pretty clear idea of the beginning and then end.

    I’ve played around with various ways of doing this, and, for myself, I’ve found the best approach is just to pick an outcome and figure it out as I go. To get metaphorical: If you don’t know your way around the part of town you’re in, but you do know the general direction towards a part you’re better acquainted with, just take whatever road you find going that way. You can always come back later and look for a better one.

    • That’s a good way of looking at it, Connor. Of course, sometimes when you find yourself in an area of town you don’t know very well, you need to stop and ask directions…

  7. FOD

    Hi Jo,
    I’m so thrilled you are back writing! and very touched by your words. You are an inspiration and a wonderful mentor. I feel so lucky that the universe chose to collide our paths.
    Looking forward to reading the next installment of your novel, Claire x

  8. Pingback: DTD: Signs of hope, New Challenges and Random Fun | Ben Trube

  9. I outlined my current novel WIP before sitting down to write it. It was not so simple as the outline you’ve created, despite the fact that I tried – oh I tried – to make it simple. It took me several months to outline and ended up being something like 12,000 words long. Egads… But it’s worked so far. When I sit down to write, I mostly know what I’m doing.

    • I often wish I could write the way you do, getting your full outline done before you start writing. I’ve even tried it a few times. But it’s just not the way I process things, and always ends in me losing inspiration for the project. I’m still incredibly envious of your ability to write a 12,000 word outline, though!

      • Heh. You’ve got to do what works for you! But sometimes it’s good to try things a different way just to see how they work out for you. Then you really get a sense for what actually does work. (I’ve done some seat-of-my-pants stuff before, and it turns out okay, but it’s not my preference. It’s harder for me to maintain tension and progression when I don’t know where I’m going)

      • I actually did manage to write out a 4000 word outline for a novel a few years back. (That’s a HUGE outline for me, although nowhere near your level.) And then I couldn’t bring myself to write the story itself. I kinda wanted to tick a box and say, “Well, that story’s been told.”

        If there’s one thig this experience has taught me, though, it’s that I work best with an idea of beginning and end when I start, and then need to stop in the middle to outline the rest.

        Isn’t it great that we’re all different?

      • Yeah… and it’s great that we can try and experience things for ourselves.

  10. Pingback: Don’t Tell Anyone, But Outlining is Secretly Awesome | The Happy Logophile

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