Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Away With Roadmaps! Why I Don't Use Outlines

I've had it thrown at me from every direction that a writer must always outline at the very least the basic plot before going to work on the novel itself. How can you possibly get where you're going if you don't even know where you're headed? You can't get from Point A to Point B if there's no clear Point B to start with!

And here's what I say to that...

Get it? *wink*

I'm not saying jump in on a full-scale magnum opus with no idea what you plan on doing. I'm saying, don't worry about the road ahead, and just keep your eyes on what's in front of you.

Lemme share a few anecdotes from my "personal experiences" file. For the novel that I'm now re-writing, I spent a solid month picturing in my head exactly what was going to happen. I wrote every last detail down in a notebook, tore out the pages and carried them in my pocket, and stuck to that outline, not deviating from it in the slightest degree. Not once. Now, X amount of years later, I can read that first draft and see how stiff, forced, and unlikely it is (insofar as a fantasy novel can be "likely" in the first place). This is one of the reasons I'm now taking a second shot at it.

With the last three novels I've finished, there was no game plan. I had the bare framework of the story, the characters that would be populating it, a few ideas for some good scenes, and eventually a theme, and I ran with them. It's a given that there were roadblocks and times when I had no idea where the whole thing was going or what I was going to do next...also known as ruts in the road. Those times turned out to be the best ones, because that's when I had to really dig deep into my modest ingenuity and figure out how to save the situation and make the story better for it. And I think I succeeded in that, or so my trusty betas tell me. And because I just stood back and let things go as they would, there's no plot holes, the flow is smooth, and everything works in harmony...or so my betas tell me (can't judge my own performance, after all). The details worked out for themselves, with me only performing the task of actually writing them down and occasionally keeping them in line.

Put another way, think of plot as shrubbery. No, seriously. Outlines can turn out like topiary: The finished product may look interesting and pretty, but it's still tacky and unnatural. The end result should be more like a rose bush. It spreads, it roams, it ranges at will, and while you maintain it to keep it in check when you must, it has the freedom to grow. It's controlled chaos. That sounds bad, but "chaos" only means unpredictable--which is always a good thing when it comes to books.

Back to my original analogy. Which trips are the most memorable: the ones with the rigid schedules, where every minute is accounted for and allotted, or the ones with no schedule at all and you just follow where the road takes you because it just feels right? In my opinion, the process of writing a book should be every bit as enjoyable as reading one, if not more so. It's hard work, sure, but you also learn something as you go along, quite often about yourself. Corny as it sounds, it really is a journey of self-discovery. Why would you want to make a timeline for that?

Bottom line is, just don't sweat what's going to happen later and focus on where you are now. Let the next chapter take care of itself and, heck, if you can avoid it, don't even think about your big finish! Chances are, the story will take its own turn in another direction anyway. That's a good thing, though. It means its walking on its own legs!

Hope this helps! If not, disregard it as more hot air and hogwash!

Your pal,


  1. (Sweetly Intoxicated) You've provided excellent advice for right-brain people but many left-brain (linear, logical) people, are totally lost without their maps, timelines, flow-charts, spreadsheets and probably a pocket protector as well.

    I retired as a New Package (as is, bottles, cans, & cartons) Research & Development, Project Manager for Coors, with a background in Mechanical Engineering. In R&D, I had the freedom to be explorative and creative, but only under the scrutiny of exhaustive planning and documentation. I managed to obtain a U.S. design patent for a really cool bottle.

    I've done extensive business and pleasure travel, both here and abroad. I'm an obsessive map reader and think planning is good portion of the trip fun. How do I manage to allow for the thrill of surprise experiences and discoveries with pleasure travel? I incorporate contingencies and time padding in my plan. I limit reservations to reduce time restrictions and travel in the off-season. For business travel, I would often make little side trips to explore cities and the surrounding area. Detroit was an eye-opener!

    Why am I telling all of this boring stuff? The research and planning will be my part strategy to write my Phantom of the Opera novel and my life experiences will be infused into the storyline content. I played the organ and piano as a young girl, have extensive knowledge of machinery and glass manufacturing, and have "explored" very interesting locations such as castles, exotic beaches, etc.

    You could say my novel would have a "Kay" research element, but stops abruptly there. My Phantom moves on and lives a full life. He will be VERY sensual with heighten musical and bizarre abilities. As for the other characters; I'd be giving too much away if I mentioned them. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to attract a male readership with some of the story technical elements. I have one last clue about what I like in the Phantom stories. In Leroux's, one of my favorite scenes is about the Rat Catcher; where I could literally hear, smell and feel those rats, clawing their way over my body! Enough said! Thanks for providing the space for my looonnngg comment.

    1. You've got a patent? Wow!

      Yeah, this probably isn't the best advice for everyone. I'm just illogical enough myself to fly by the seat of my pants, and it gets me into trouble every now and then. I'm intrigued by your comments on research, because that's one of the few things I take a practical approach to. I learn all I can about something, then use what I need. It's still really fun even when I don't learn much, because that leaves me room to wing it.

      It's a novel, and not just a story?! Now I'm really intrigued, especially when you mention the Rat Catcher!

  2. (Sweetly Intoxicated) Yes, but the company owns it and all I got was a $100 token gesture. Nevertheless, I did have one of the most interesting jobs at Coors. I'm glad that you like research. Many fictional writers rely solely on their amazing imagination. In my novel, there'll be many subjects that require research. Besides, some of those subjects are so fascinating to me, it will make the "planning" part of the fun of the "trip". I used the Rat Catcher as an example of my intention to assault the emotions and senses of my reader. Yeah, I shouldn't say it's a story. Actually, there's so much material, I will have to have a sequel!

    1. Would it give anything away to say what kind of research? In the course of working on my own novels I've had to learn about fencing, blacksmithing, werewolf folklore, Greek mythology, and Orpheus. For my Phantom stories, I've looked up old street maps of Paris,various operas, and Lord knows what else. All I can say for myself is that I like to read about everything, I prefer to be thorough in my writing, and I really am a nerd at heart. :)


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