Tuesday, December 08, 2009


So, today I spent half of my morning re-writing my query letter. Not because I hate it, but because I read some advice that suggests taking a serious look at your letter after you've received around 10 rejections. So I posted it on the forums at Nathan Bransford's blog, got some AWESOME feedback, and started rewriting it to make it better!

Anyway, now that I've finished perusing the forums to try to help other writers, I have a question for you. How do you feel about outlines when you sit down to write a novel?

Here's where I'm coming from, and since you're reading this blog, I'm assuming you care. I have read many MANY blog posts by (and had real-life conversations with) unpublished authors who all say the same thing: "I don't use outlines because they limit my creativity." I've read five or six articles by published authors who say that they USED to say the same thing, but they don't anymore (and some of the unpublished authors I follow on the interwebs say that they use outlines, but they didn't used to). As far as outlines go, my favorite author, Jim Butcher, STRONGLY recommends them, to the point where he suggests polishing them to perfection before even sitting down to write the novel itself...and this guy's sold OVER A DOZEN bestsellers.

On the other hand, I can't think of any successful writers who DON'T use outlines (but that's only because I've never read any articles on how to write by the authors who don't use them). Because of how many successful writers exist in the world, I'm sure there are PLENTY of them, and if you know who they are, let me know in the comments so I can check them out!

Now, like many of the unpublished authors I told you about, I USED to sit down and just write, letting the story tell itself, so to speak. But after that failed the first time (I had no cohesive plot), I changed my method. For me, the outline is one of the most exciting parts because I get to erase entire sections of plot and replace them with something else. I can copy and past and cut and drop things into different sections of the book without having take a week afterward to edit everything. The outline is my opportunity to experiment with the characters and ideas for the world the story takes place in. In fact, the section of outline that I wrote last Friday for The Goblin Incursion consisted of a complete paragraph that could make up the first chapter of the book, but when I sat down on Monday to move forward, I decided that I wanted to COMPLETELY change the opening scene, and what I came up with will give me plenty of opportunities to reintroduce characters, concepts of the world, and backstory WHILE the plot of this book moves forward. I could not have done that without giving myself the freedom to erase and move things whenever I want to at this early stage in the process.

One of the other great things I've found is that, even if you have a very specific direction you want to take with your story, once you sit down to write, you don't have to follow the outline if you don't want to! For me, it just provides a direction to head toward while I make sure that the plot is solid. While it can be a road map, using it as a compass gives me the freedom to remain creative as I flesh out the book.

Now, here's my question to you all: How do you write? Outline? No outline? And if you do use an outline, is it a slap-dash, mix-mash of ideas that you want to fit into the book somewhere, or is it very specific and detailed?


  1. Since I don't (technically) write, I equate your question to cooking (which I do ... sometimes). An outline is like a recipe ~ you have a plot (meal) & characters (ingredients) and a general direction you want to go (when it will be served). How it all looks in the end depends on the writer's (cook's) creativity and personal limitations.

    That said, I've always considered a recipe an outline ~ it can be followed exactly, but that limits the creativity & could rob the world of a completely new, exciting, delicious dish!

    So, I vote "outline".

  2. I vote outline too.....I agree with Deb comparing it to a recipe.
    Since teaching Middle School kids to write, they must always start out with an Orgainizer (Outline) The first one is a Mish-Mash with less details. Then the next revision can rearrange the 'ideas'. and add more details. Got to love the computer for Cut and Paste!!!!

    I teach the orgainizer as a 'living document'. It can always be added to and items crossed out or re-arranged. How could you follow an entire plot and characters without first doing an Outline?? I would forget where I was in the story.

  3. Your mother AND your mother-in-law agree (!), so you have your answer. No need to ask anyone else. Ever! Right, Sharon?