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Why I Outline My Novels     Before I Write Them

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried ‘pantsing’. It sounds so wonderfully free and creative, the concept sucked me in time after time. But after writing myself into countless dead ends, I’ve finally accepted that it isn’t my process. To get where I’m going when writing a novel, I need a map.

To me, the best comparison for outlining a novel before you write it is carding wool before you spin it. Anyone who has ever hand spun wool knows what a mess most raw fleeces are when you get them. Straight off the sheep’s back they’re full of dirt, seeds, knots, grease and all manner of foreign objects. Carding the wool first opens up the fibres and gets rid of most of that unwanted debris.

I’m not saying it isn’t frustrating sometimes. I’ve got this fabulous project in mind that I’m dying to get to and I have to hold off and do all this extra preparation first. But here’s the thing: if I do take the time to prepare the wool first, when I finally sit down to spin the yarn just flows. There are no knots to untangle, no grit to pick out, nothing unwanted to jam up the works. It all just pours out in one steady stream.

Well, my story ideas are often just like a raw fleece – so tangled and full of needless material I have to do some preliminary work before I can even see what I’ve got. Sure it takes time. But, for me, the pay-offs are more than worth it. Because, just like carding that filthy fleece, outlining my story ‘opens things up’ and gets rid of all the rubbish that shouldn’t be there.

A difference in mind-set

For me, plotting a story and writing it are two very different functions. The first is a logical linear process, the second an immersion in creative flow. I seem to work best if I can keep these two actions totally separate.

When plotting, I’m constantly going back and forth, asking questions; creating, changing and deleting scenes; moving things around, determining where my turning points belong. But when all that’s done and I actually start to write the story, my goal is to remain fully absorbed in the world of my characters. I can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to think about plot.

In the plotting stage, I explore and develop my initial idea. I determine who my characters are, what motivates them, the obstacles they face, and decide how this will play out in the story – the all-important sequence of events.

What I end up with is a detailed scene-by-scene outline, a road map I know will get me from A to B. I know my story now contains all the required elements of structure because I can see them in this mini overview. From this point on I don’t have to think about the plot any more. All I have to do is sit down and write it.

While this may sound as though I leave nothing to chance, that isn’t the case. I rarely get through my first outline without changing things. Once I actually start writing the story, new ideas always present themselves which requires me to redraft my outline.

That’s perfectly okay. The purpose of my outline isn’t to keep me rigidly bound to a pre-set plot but merely to give me a path to follow. The bottom line is, when I get up in the morning I have to be able to go to my desk knowing what I’ll be writing that day. If I don’t, I just end up wasting too much time.

What’s important for me

So, like a spinner working with carded wool, having an outline means my story is far more likely to flow freely once I start writing it.

Maintaining that flow is the number one reason I choose to outline. I know from experience what happens when I lose my momentum when writing a story. Having to stop and work out some element of the plot yanks me totally out of my creative zone. And once I’m stalled, the doubts creep in: Is this story really that great? Can I do it justice? Will my editor like it?

Another reason outlining works better for me is because my stories often have several plot threads going on at once involving separate groups of characters and I simply can’t remember what everyone’s doing! Outlining first allows me to plot each group’s journey through the story separately and then weave them together in a workable sequence of alternating scenes.

A third reason I prefer to outline is the simple fact I don’t get that many truly original ideas for my stories. More often than not I need to spend some extra time shaping my idea into something different. If I just sat down and wrote a story based on my first germ of an idea, I’d probably end up writing a story that’s already been told.

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