To Outline or Not To Outline That Is The Question

I’ve been writing all my life. Okay maybe not the first four or so years but MOST of my life. Those first four years I told stories to my parents well okay maybe not the first year or so. One story I told about a world renowned mouse is still remembered by my father as being as good as any of that mouse’s short movies he’s seen. But I didn’t start trying to write fiction stories to sell until about 10 years ago.

I had an idea for a novel (that has since broke my heart and is shelved indefinitely). Being a novice I tried to start responsibly. I signed up for a local class at the university. I passed the class with an A+ and was on my way to being a published novelist. Still not there yet – achieved the first part but not the second but still working.

My sixth grade school photo

In 1977 when I was in the 6th grade I was happy I had mastered outlining.

I had been introduced to the concept of outlining a novel before starting. Oh, I rebelled. I’d mastered those Roman numerals and letters back in junior high I wasn’t go back to them. So I did my first NaNoWriMo and finished it in two weeks. I had a novel, or so I thought. Except it wasn’t done and it took another 70,000 words to complete the story. It was too long and rambled (Gasp NO!).

I built a library of books on how to write. I read them all. I did exercise after exercise. I still refused this outlining idea. Who wanted to do all that proper spacing, deal with all those layers, take away the fun of following my muse where it leads you? NOT ME!

I again did NaNoWriMo. I again completed it in two weeks. I again had a large rambling mess of a story that at times was me at the keyboard desperate for words just going on and wondering how in the heck I was going to get the story from where it was to somewhere it needed to go.

Still the idea of outlining left me cold.

Still the idea of outlining left me cold.

Then I took another writing class in my new town. There I met the core of what would become my writer’s group today. There I started writing short stories. There I got short stories published. There I mastered the structure of a story with practice and constructive critique.

There I learned outlining a story didn’t have to be that highly structured form I’d learned all those decades ago. It was a road map, a plan on how the story was going to get from the start to the end. It helped break down a large story into small doable daily chunks. I saw other writer’s outlines. One had published over 20 novels, I paid particular attention to what she wanted from an outline not so much how she did it.

I was learning writers are individuals. How each created a finished novel was individual. Sure I could learn from them but the answer was to take what I learned and create an approach that suited me. It was obvious my long rambling works needed structure. I could see an outline was structured. So how to take outlining’s structure without letting it box in this former regulatory compliance auditor. I did more reading seeking out books that talked about story structure and planning. I did more listening at the writer’s group on how they did it or how their approach was changing. Then one day I started and came up with an approach that’s still evolving but works well for me.

Photo of sun through trees made by Aaron from the car

I was beginning to see the light on how a version of outlining could help me.

First I sit down with pen and paper. I think better in the old classic mode – pen to paper. I started writing out the outline of a story as if I was telling a friend over coffee what my new novel was going to be. The whole story in synopsis, over coffee. There I had it a start progressing to a middle that makes it to the end. Then I looked over the story and saw it needed a time line so I started planning out on those notes how time was moving in the story. Then I went back through that and with each time I put a place that part of story occurred. Well by the time I’d done all that my notes were getting messy so I moved to a keyboard and started looking at what I had.
I typed it all up nice and neat moving things where my arrows said they should be, putting in the time and place things occurred.

Now was time for a bit of research into the genre that the story fell into best. How long are their chapters? How many are typical? How many words total? What makes a good chapter? After getting info on this I digested it and made some decisions for myself. By now I’d read tonnes of books, gone to many classes, sat in my writer’s group for years, published a few stories, attend some conference. I had an idea of the creative and business side to what I wanted to do.

Four year old me in a bubble bath wearing a shower cap.

I’ve always gotten good ideas in the bath.

I decided to go with 30 – 35 chapters. Chapters were to be about 3,000 words give or take 500. I’d break up my outline into chapters and at the chapter break I’d put the time, place, and characters that were needed. When I was done I had my outline. It was compromised of chapter groups of about three sentences saying something like “John discovers diamond hidden in wall. Hearing bad guys coming he pockets it and runs.” So I knew the heart of the chapter, who had to be there, where it was and when it happened.

Writing from that became easier than sitting down with no idea what I was going to write beyond a number of words. My word counting days diminished. I wrote scenes or chapters. Sometimes I’d just to another place because a scene had just played itself before my mind’s eye in the shower. I get lots of ideas in the shower.

Now I have a map and mark my route from here to there in my story.

Now the outline isn’t set in stone but like a map it helps me plan how I’m going to go to get to my destination. As I write I make changes. On the printed copy I make notes of those changes. In the word document I make a note change starts here. Then I keep on writing as if the changes had always been there. Also my printed outline gives me a road map to where my changes are in that final first draft.

Now I’m to the next step. The first draft sets on the shelf cooling. The outline with notes has cooled over the holidays. Today I’ll take it out and look at the changes. I’ll work them in, typing up a clean copy of the revised outline that will guide my proofing and rewrite. Any more changes will be noted in the manuscript’s word document and on the outline for the next pass.

In the end I can say I solidly come down on the side of outline. I wouldn’t hit the road from here to say Seattle without a map of some kind. I might not take the route I first noted to Seattle but after I venture off to say find the diamond in the wall I know my choices of how to get heading in the direction of Seattle again and how to get there by the deadline.

As always I’d love to hear from you. You can comment here (it’ll show up when I get it) or you can can catch me over on Google+ (+Mary Louise Eklund) or on Twitter (@marylouiseklund) or on Flickr (Mary Louise Eklund). If those don’t suit you can e-mail me marylouiseeklund at either or

Until next time!

2 thoughts on “To Outline or Not To Outline That Is The Question

  1. I wrote my first two books last year–neither one is published yet (the second one is “resting” while I work on revisions to the first one). The first is a memoir and the second a novel (male/male romance though I hate the label!). In both cases, I just sat down one day and started writing without any outline or really even a solid idea of where I was going. About half way through the memoir, I figured out where the story was going. With the novel, I knew where it would start and after a few chapters, where I wanted it to end. The middle came as a complete surprise to me! The characters spoke to me, filling me in on their back stories and how they were all connected with each other. I know it sounds like hooey but honestly, that’s how it happened for me. I can see the value of an outline–I do a lot of backing up and revising as I write. Maybe one day I’ll even use an outline. But for now, I’m an avowed pantser!

    • Every creator has what works for them. Congratulations for completing two novel drafts! I wouldn’t suggest you change. I’d just suggest to be open to change when you need it. My writing style is always evolving. My friend who is now up to 30+ published novels agrees the process is an ever changing thing.

      I fall in love with my characters enjoy spending time with them and that leads to tens of thousands of words that aren’t needed to move the story along. My casual type of outlining keeps me moving on plot without rambling. I do not revise when I’m doing my first draft. I belong to the Mike Stackpole school of keep going then fix it. If as I’m going a character changes say from a blond school girl to a retired grizzled marine sniper I just change right there put in the note (from here Amy is Avi fix backward from here) and roll on. As one of my teacher said “You gotta get the mess on the page to clean it up.”

      I have two drafts on the shelf. One cooling, a steampunk mystery that two short stories with the characters have already been published. The other is a corporate espionage thriller that broke my heart and will set there until I can face it again. I’ve got outline drafts for 3 novels in development. The first is another thriller. The second a sequel to the steampunk mystery. The third an urban fantasy with a rural setting.

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