You have an idea. You might even have a first chapter. Now what? Where does the book go from here?
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
If you ask people in the writing community, they generally divide themselves into two camps: outliners and “pantsers” (or people who work by the seat of their pants). The truth of the matters is that there are all sorts of permutations in between.
Some people need to know exactly where the book is going before they start. If that’s the case for you, you might be an outliner. Your outline could be anything from a one page list of bullet points listing key events to a detailed chapter by chapter summary. Let’s call this “Extreme Outlining”. The extreme outliners I know tend to spend a lot of time on the outlining process, since that’s where the major plotting and rethinking occurs for them. By the time they get to the writing, it goes fairly quickly, since the major kinks have already been worked out.
People this works best for: people who need lots of structure; plot driven writers.
On the far end, you have Ulitmate Pantsing. This consists of sitting down in front of your computer (or clay tablet) and just seeing where the characters take you. My ultimate pantsing friends tell me that this involves a great deal of trial and error and rewriting as they get to know the characters. The upside? Going to all sorts of interesting places you never imagined the story would take you. The down side? Increased antacid use as you wonder what on earth is going to happen next.
People this works for: people who are comfortable with chaos; character driven writers.
Then there’s the in-between, into which I fall. I’ve tried Extreme Outlining. It failed miserably for me. By trying to make my characters adhere to an outline I’d written months before, I wrote myself into one of the worst cases of writer’s block of my writing career. The characters wanted to grow and develop in a different direction. I had to scrap the outline and re-think the trajectory of the plot before that could happen.
On the other hand, ultimate pantsing tends to peter out for me after about four chapters. At some point, I need to have a sense of where I’m going, of what I’m writing towards.
My solution? I wind up outlining about five chapters ahead. I re-outline constantly as I go, scribbling on little bits of paper that I then throw out about a week later. That way, I have some sense of structure, but it stays dynamic and flexible.
The downside, of course, is that there is still that measure of chaos. I never know exactly how a plot-line is going to resolve itself until I’ve hit that five chapter zone. On the plus side, since I’m constantly re-thinking and re-plotting, I don’t write myself into as many dead ends.
My suggestion would be to play around with different levels of outlining to figure out what works for you. An outline doesn’t have to look like an outline to serve an outlining purpose. Some people think well in bullet points, others don’t. Often, I find just sitting down with a pad of paper and brainstorming plot ideas and bits of dialogue helps provide direction. It may not look like an outline, but it’s still giving you an idea of where the story is going.
I know other writers who keep dry erase boards in their office, with outlines that can be altered as they go, smudging out old bits, adding new ones. They keep family trees there, character traits, whatever they might need to go forward, with the comfort of knowing that dry erase means that none of it is locked in stone unless they want it to be.
Some writers swear by collages. (Check out Jennifer Crusie’s article about her book collages.) For the artistically oriented, that serves the same purpose as my long-hand brainstorming: it forces you to focus and think out your plot and characters.
For character-driven writers, writing character sketches– bits of their back-story, their emotional reactions, their likes and dislikes– might serve a similar purpose by helping you to get to know your character better. Where the character goes, the story goes.
Don’t be too worried if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen before you sit down to write. (Unless, of course, you’re an extreme outliner by nature, in which case, why are you still reading this? Go write that outline!) Figuring it out as you go along can be part of the fun….
Have you stumbled on any outlining techniques that work for you?