In the time that I’ve been contributing to Self Publishing Advisor, I don’t think I’ve once talked about outlines and outlining––at least, not as the primary subject of a post. That’s about to change!
I can’t think of a better time to address outlining and planning than after a year of great upheaval and disruption, when so few things went according to design and the world proved time and time again the old adage about one’s best laid plans:
Unfortunately for them, mice have neither opposable thumbs or the ability to write the Great American Novel––and I must confess, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was one of my absolute favorite books as a child, so I wouldn’t have minded if they did. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t find a nimble mouse detective nearly so appealing.
For those of us who do have opposable thumbs and the desire to use them for writing, we have long debated the merits and drawbacks of outlining, of sitting down to build the architecture of our next book before hanging the wall panels and window frames upon it. There are those who are naturally drawn to this kind of thing; I remember envying them as a college student. Such orderly minds! As you might have guessed, I was not made from the same stuff. I was, as many authors now phrase it, a pantser, perpetually neglecting to outline any of my papers the way that American students are encouraged to do from middle school onward. I have also neglected to outline most of my creative writing projects over the intervening years, leaning on long late-night writing sessions to finish out drafts.
As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve come to experience the importance of cultivating the kind of “organized thinking” I’d only admired from afar as a younger person. I may not be naturally inclined toward rigorous planning sessions, but as my ability to draft for hours on end late at night has attenuated over time, writing became much more of a challenge to be overcome than a creative endeavor undertaken as easily as breathing. Writing, it turns out, takes time, and I am merely human in that my time is limited … and growing moreso as I age, and competing concerns such as family and work jostle within my planner for all available waking hours. (And naps. Let’s be honest. I find naps more and more mandatory as I age, too.)
So it is that I’ve come to regard outlining as both a science worth mastering and an art worth ever refining by constant practice. And I’ll confess, I absolutely do still struggle with the whole concept. Why spend valuable time planning what to write when I might just as well be spending that time actually writing, getting underway for real? But I need this slower beginning to a large writing project, it turns out, and I will waste far less time later in the manuscript drafting process if I remember what beats I am meant to be hitting and by which page number (or word count) I should begin curving my story arcs toward their denouements. Many of my novel-length works would have required far less editorial work later on if I’d only planned ahead and then stayed on target instead of simply meandering wherever my heart desired at any given moment in the writing process.
Of course, it’s one thing to say such a thing and it’s another to actually feel convinced that it’s true. Plenty of teacher, professors, and fellow writers have tried to convince me of the value of outlines, and yet I wasn’t ready to feel that truth until I’d stopped just short of finishing multiple projects because I couldn’t figure out how to get them back on track. This isn’t an issue for me if I have even a vague plan when I set out of what the point, purpose, and closing mood were supposed to be.
I know I can’t persuade you to outline before you’re ready, as I took a couple of decades to reach that conclusion myself. You might be one of the lucky ones, like those planners among my college acquaintances who seemed born thinking in bullet points, but truthfully outlining is a practice that can be picked up at any stage of life, and any stage of a person’s craft. You might be like me, and find yourself boxed into an ever-more-cluttered brain corner by the increase in mayhem brought on by 2020. And if you’re just on the cusp of leaning that way, of maybe taking your first baby steps into the outlining world, I hope my words of affirmation here will prove the encouragement you need in order to try it out.
I thought I might take this topic a little farther next week and offer some practical how-to tips of what to do once pen hits paper or you sit down to type up that first outline. There are so many competing ways of doing it––what do you think? Would seeing some options prove useful to you?
Thinking of you always. ♣︎