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Don’t Tell Anyone, But Outlining is Secretly Awesome

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Outlines. Love them or hate them, they’re pretty much a staple of the writing life. You can’t wander through the verdant fields of writing advice for five minutes without tripping over someone espousing the marvellousness and wonderifity of outlining. For those of us who self-identify as ‘Pantsers’, it can feel a bit like being bludgeoned over the head with a blunt trout.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve waxed loquacious about outlines more than once.

It all started back in May 2011, when I blogged about how writing is like an episode of children’s show Banana’s in Pjyamas. In this post, I said:

Once you have your outline, and you begin to write, it’s easy to get so fixated on following your outline that you don’t even notice what’s going on in your story. And when your characters start wanting to do things that you haven’t planned, you react by trying to force them back into the outline you’ve prepared.

But then in August 2011, when writing a post about overcoming Writer’s Block, I recommended writing an outline if you’re stuck on what should happen next in the story:

If you haven’t written an outline, write one. Interview your characters. Make notes. Design the history of the world. Whatever you need to get you back on track.

Admittedly it wasn’t a glowing recommendation, and it was definitely in the realms of “only outline if you absolutely must”, but it was a vast change from the earlier Outlines Are Rubbish! post.

Only a month later, in September of 2011, I wrote about how writing is like doing a jigsaw (and vice versa) and thawed out a little more on the idea of outlines:

Regardless of whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, have a plan. Maybe it’s a 100-page outline. Maybe it’s a “brief history of the world” in 50,000 words. Maybe it’s a series of index cards, or notes in Scrivener (or another writing program), or just a vague plotline in your head and an image of a character or scene. It doesn’t matter. Choose the plan that works for you, but make sure you have one.

OutlineUntil the unthinkable finally happened in June 2012. I blogged about writing an outline for my WIP. I had caveats. It was an accidental outline. It wasn’t a real outline, because it was actually only a list of plot points.

Then two interesting things happened.

Thing the First

I went back to writing my novel, and it was… easier. Much easier. Crazy easier. I’d sit down and know what happened next. Not exactly, of course. My not-really-an-outline might say something like: “They escape from bad guys.” And so I’d sit down and let my characters work out how they were going to escape. Often, it surprised me. But at the end of the chapter, my outline had been fulfilled. They had, indeed, escaped from the bad guys. And then I could move on to the next point on the kinda-sorta-an-outline, without having to spend hours (days… weeks… months…) wondering what happened next.

Thing the Second

I finished my manuscript and handed it over to my critique partner. Her feedback was very helpful. Especially when she said: “The second half, after [transition scene] is great. It’s fast-paced, and everything makes sense, and I couldn’t stop turning pages. But the first half feels like you keep repeating the same information over and over, and it’s a bit slow in places.”
Ah-ha! Do you know what happened at that transition scene to change everything? Go on, take a guess.

Yes, that’s the exact point I wrote my accidental outline.

Who knew? Outlines not only make writing easier, they also make it better. Outlines are secretly awesome.

The Intentional OutlineI started a new WIP a few months ago. I managed a grand total of 7,000 words before I realised I needed an outline. So I wrote one.

Yes, I was shocked too.

It wasn’t easy. My Pantser heart rebelled at the idea. It took two weeks of head scratching and swearing and foiled procrastination attempts. But it worked. And every night when I sit down to write, I pull out my outline and check what I’m supposed to be writing, and off I go. Faster than the speed of two hundred startled gazelles! (As my father used to say.)

It’s true. Outlines are secretly awesome.

But don’t tell anyone.

Outlines! Do you like them? Do you use one? 

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