The Outline Advantage

My task this week: plan and plot my new WIP. I know, I know, outlining is not cool, not artistic, it hampers inspiration… Tony Hillerman says, “Usually the book is finished long before the outline is. Go with the flow. Sometimes plots don’t make sense, but it avoids that awful problem of outlining.” Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird) is against outlining. So is Stephen King (On Writing).

But I still love it. I’m not talking about one of those big I, little i nightmares from school research papers, but rather creating a plan for the work I plan to write, or as Strunk and White say, “a suitable design.” Having an outline gives me an advantage as I draft a new novel.
Advantage #1: Plot. Outlining allows me to work out the structure of the novel. I like to see everything visually and puzzle out questions. If this happens, then what will happen next? I can see the pacing, story arc, etc. 
Advantage #2: Avoid Meandering, Wandering, Getting Lost. An outline helps me keep to the story I intended to tell. I won’t write hundreds of unnecessary words, or pages, that don’t actually contribute to my main character’s journey. Sometimes it’s hard to cut clever or pretty sentences that sound good–even if they don’t belong. 
A good outline also gives me a map through the middle. Knowing where I’m going prevents those panicky moments, “Eek! I’ve written 100 pages, but I don’t know what happens next, and, maybe the whole thing is bad, bad, bad.”
But–it is important to be flexible. I’m always adding and deleting things from my outline.
Advantage #3: Tracking Subplots, Minor Characters, Themes. To make outlining even more fun, I’ll use color for each aspect of the story. At a glance I can see if I’m ignoring a subplot for too long, or leaving out a minor character who will confuse my readers if she all of a sudden pops back into the story 75 pages later. 
Advantage #4: Remembering The Good Stuff. I do a lot of research before I write, and I’d probably forget about some of my most interesting tidbits if I simply dove into the story and started wandering about. Outlining forces me to really think about my story and figure out how to fit all of my ideas into my plot in an exciting, relevant manner.
Advantage #5: Fast, Smooth, Writing. I rarely sit and stare at my blank computer screen wondering what the &#*[email protected]  happens next. I’ve been letting my subconscious mind go to work. I always look at which scene I’m going to work on the next day, and think about it while I’m cooking dinner, driving carpool, walking the dogs, etc. I’m not worried about what will happen next, I’m focused on how to make it happen. 
Advantage #6: Cleaner First Draft. My outline serves as a first draft of sorts. And that makes revision easier. Oh, I still have things to fix, but I usually don’t need a bulldozer during revision.
So what if Stephen King thinks I’m a dork?

4 thoughts on “The Outline Advantage”

  1. I agree with you too. Outlining helps me a ton! Of course, sometimes I have to revise my outlines because cool stuff happens in the writing of the story that takes me in unexpected (and better-than-my-outline) places, but overall, my outlines save my neck. Awesome post, Sydney!

  2. With each new project I try to outline a little more. I'm getting there but I have to start by the seat of my pants or I get completely mired in the outline. At about 10,000 words I find I can stop and put together a loose outline that actually helps me to get through the rest of the manuscript. I envy you strong plotters. 🙂

  3. I'm always revising my outline as the story works itself out during my first draft. I can see how 10,000 words gives you a sense of where you're going, Shelli. I do a lot of notebook writing before I begin outlining, asking questions about my characters, possible plot points.


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