Writer Life Lesson #16: Outline Before You Write

Whether you write essays, or novels, or anything in between, you have an outline. As crazy as that sounds, even if you swear that you always write by the seat of your pants, you do have an outline, it just might not be written down.

This week’s lesson has to do with physically outlining. And Outlining Before You Write.

This lesson is one of my favorites, because I get to talk about my outlining skills and show you some examples. If you are planning on participating in NaNoWriMo in November, or just planning to start a novel in the near future, outlining will be your friend.

Simple Outlines

I didn’t used to outline, and then I came up with the idea for my 2011 NaNo Novel, Spark: The Girl. It started out as a simple stand alone novel, and it still can be a stand alone novel, I think. But the more I thought about it and the more I planned the more I realized I needed some kind of outline. In the course of a week, I wrote simple outlines for all seven books. Though I didn’t plan it too well back then, because there are still several holes where I can add things in as I go.

This is what I like to call a simple outline. You know the basic structure and the big events, but the small events and the other characters are not always planned. There are still room for surprises. I prefer these outlines because it isn’t as rigid as a complex outline, and I don’t feel as disappointed if I forget to add a detail. It can be as simple or complex as you want the detail to be. A lot of time I leave myself notes on my whiteboard, or a single sentence in my notes

Example: Jared and Emily meet Lea at the hospital instead of at the apartment. Why are they there?

I like to end my simple outlines with questions sometimes, something to think about when I get to that point, because I don’t know what exactly is going to happen in that book once I start writing it, or what small details I can connect to it once I start working on it.

Complex Outlines

I like complex outlines for things that I absolutely know are going to be in my novel or characters that I cannot forget to introduce at a specific time.  I prefer to use Complex outlines during second or third drafts when I know what needs to be in the novel I am working on. I use Complex outlines to go chapter by chapter, or sometimes scene by scene.

Example: Chapter 5- Jared and Emily finally start talking about the issues between them in Dr. B’s office. Emily brings up the fact that Jared tells her things she’s not sure about. Jared brings up the fact that Emily is not herself. They end up fighting and Emily storms out. Next scene is in the hospital cafeteria where Jared vents to Dr. Owen and asks for a raise to gain Emily’s trust back. Chapter ends with Jared groveling.

With Complex outlines, the content tends to be longer, more in depth, and more linear. Sometimes they take a little more thought and organization,  but they do end up making it easier to write, at least for me.

I tend to not structure my outlines too rigidly, since I do enjoy creative freedom, so occasionally as I write, I will change the outline to fit what I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll take a previous idea that may or may not have originally been part of the plot and add it in.

Whether you choose to outline or not, it does help to just have simple notes and ideas. Usually I have an ending in mind first, so occasionally it is easier to outline backwards. Other times, my ideas are all jumbled and I look at the outline ready to scream “WHAT THE F@&# DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”

Whether you outline or write by the seat of your pants, it doesn’t matter. Whatever works best for you, do it!

At least you’re still writing.

Happy Writing!


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