How Outlining Saved my Writer’s Soul

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all images complements of pixabay

Well, that’s probably an overstatement, but it did save years of revisions, which is almost the same thing.

I wrote my first book as a pantser, diving into the pages like a love-struck teenager. I was possessed, channeling characters like a medium with a direct link to the great novel in the sky. I loved the inspired feeling of freeing my characters to ramble shilly-shally where they would as they told their own stories. They had entire lives of their own; who was I to tell them what to do.

Halfway through my first draft, one of my secondary characters (a guy named Conall) informed me that not only was he refusing to die, but he wanted to be the main character! He lobbied the other characters, and being the personable guy his is, he got the other mutineers to agree. I was stuck and had to go back and rewrite the first half of the book!

Diana's BookAnd as you can imagine, by this time, it wasn’t your normal-sized book either. With all the escapades and tangents my characters insisted upon taking, the tome ended up a whopping 190,000 words.

Oh. My. Goodness. Help!

So, outlining is something that I learned the very-hard way. The end result of my initial foray into writing was two extra years of revisions. I pared away whole scenes, chapters, and characters – over 60,000 words. I felt like I was being flayed. It was excruciating!

I’m a true believer in the mighty outline.

For me, outlining a story is a monstrously important step in terms of how painful the editing process will be down the road. I learned that a well-thought out plot/outline is going to save tons of time, keep the story tight, the scenes relevant, and help tie up dangling threads. I won’t have big issues with wandering chapters, cavernous holes, and out-of-the blue surprises. I won’t be doing as much slashing, back-tracking, and rewriting just to get the story right.

GravestoneYet, what about the thrill, you ask? What about the addictive creativity of not knowing what’s coming next? What about inspiration, the free will of your characters? Trust me, as an outliner, you don’t have to erect a tombstone over your dead muse’s grave.

Aside from the usual wisdom to find what works for you, my advice would be to develop (or locate) an outlining method that still allows plenty of room for creativity. In other words, leave space for inspiration! My outlines are fluid and morph right up until I pop a period on the epilog.

This is going to sound like the polar opposite of “fluid,” but I keep track of my outlines in Excel. (Word, post-it notes, charts, and diagrams are fine too, of course). Most outliners suggest starting with the basic bullets of the story and growing it from there. I tend to jot down what I know from my musings – some of it detailed, some of it loose and full of gaps.

With those rough bones in place, the fun of fleshing out the story begins. I expand, add detail, fill logic gaps, and think through how to get from A to B and have it make sense. The joy of Excel is that I can insert, delete, reorder, and expand rows as the story takes shape. I can lump rows together into rough chapters. I can insert rows to capture bits of dialog or scenes that bubble into my brain.

At some point, hopefully, I’ve also started writing. Here’s where the old unpredictability and creativity kicks in. Over and over again, new ideas form, something unexpected happens, and characters run off and implement ideas of their own as if they’re in charge.

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Like a benevolent dictator, I routinely call the insurgents into the boardroom for some outline brainstorming. We figure out where we need to backpedal, adjust dialog, add/modify/delete scenes, and place Chekov’s gun on the mantel. Together, we re-plan future scenes, trash everything they just wrecked, plug plot holes, mend broken threads, and get the whole outline making sense and flowing again.

By the way, outlines are also potent cures for writer’s block. I may not be in the mood to write, but I always know what comes next.

Are you a happy pantser, outliner, or something in between?

Happy Writing!

176 thoughts on “How Outlining Saved my Writer’s Soul

  1. Lily says:

    Ha! This is how my first novel is going. I don’t even quite know the ending. It is fun and full of surprises, but like you said, I now have to go back and do a lot of editing. Really liked reading this post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lopu123 says:

    Such valuable insight coming from a great writer…savored it with acute interest!

    Liked by 1 person

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