In defence of outlining

As I’ve mentioned a couple of posts ago, I am soon going to be sitting down to begin writing the second volume of my time-travelling detective series The Erik Midgard Case Files. I would like to be doing it already, but right at the moment, I’m in the middle of the writer’s version of what the film industry calls pre-production; outlining. As I’m also partly stuck, I thought I’d take a break today to write something about this.

Novelists can be roughly gathered into two groups. There are those who outline; planning out in note-form what is going to happen in their novel before they start writing it, and those who don’t; preferring to plunge straight into the book almost as soon as they have the idea and just write, creating plot, character and situations as they go along. I’ve nearly always been an outliner, though I have experimented with doing without, but I’ve often felt that authors who don’t outline have a real tendency to look down their noses at those of us who do.

No one has ever done this to me personally, but Philip Pullman has come the closest. I was lucky enough to literally get a front row seat for his “Fundamental Particles of Narrative” lecture in Bangor in Wales during my second year of university. One of the questions asked afterwards was if he outlined. Pullman said he had only done it on one occasion, planning everything in a book out in immense detail and then found it incredibly boring to actually write. Isaac Asimov writes that he once tried outlining a novel, but found it constricting and that he couldn’t force his characters to adhere to what he’d planned for them. George R.R. Martin talks about the two different approaches to writing as the difference between architects and gardeners:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

Martin comes the closest to what I’ve often felt when talking with writers who don’t outline (though I’ll name no names here). Outlining is something that real writers don’t do. It’s a cheat tool used by people without enough imagination, creativity or talent, who need to write their own instruction manual before they can do anything. There’s also often a kind of feeling (again naming no names) that spontaneous, natural inspiration is more worthy than manufactured ideas, scenarios and solutions to impossible problems that the author has actually thought about and worked out.

It’s never nice to be told by internationally acknowledged masters of your craft that you are doing something wrong. But I don’t believe I am and the reason is that, for me, outlining is a very natural and spontaneous part of the writing process.

Another question every writer gets asked is “Where do you get your ideas from?” My answer is always “All over the place.” Books, magazines, comics, TV, radio, the internet, everyday life, feeding the cat; any and everything I do can stir up something at the edge of my subconscious that makes me think “Hey! That’s a good idea.”

These ideas, however, are very rarely complete stories on their own. 95% of the time, they are single elements; a situation, a problem or a solution, an interesting object or a person. Whenever I have one of these, I always write it down in one of the numerous notebooks that fill my bedroom as soon as possible. If you asked me to describe what the idea space in my brain looks like; I’d tell you to imagine the asteroid belt or Saturn’s rings; chunks of rock and ice drifting very slowly through space in orbit around a sun or planet. Each chunk represents one of these ideas. Every so often, two ideas will touch. Most of the time, they’ll bounce off each other again and tumble slowly away to resume different orbits. But sometimes, two chunks will touch and then they will fuse together and I will have an idea for a story.

From here, the two fused chunks will crystallize and start to grow. As it grows, the idea will gain mass, just like a planet forming, and its gravity will increase. Any other idea-chunks that are drifting past it, and are made of similar elements, will be drawn in and they will fuse to it too. A few I will even nudge towards it to see if they stick or not. Every time it grows or something joins it, I – back in the real world – will be writing this down; keeping a record of what it is growing into. The heavier it gets, the faster it grows and the more pages I fill in the real world. When I come to write the outline (by which I mean sit down and writing the actual outline document) 90% of the time all I’m doing is bringing all of my previous notes together, putting them in order and filling in the gaps between them.

It is of course, a little more complicated than this in practise. My general procedure – which I’m following right now for Erik Midgard 2 – is to have the initial idea and write down all the subsequent ideas it leads to. When I have enough to give me a general shape of the story and sense of what the details will be, I will plan out my characters (this is a topic for another day, but I plan characters in depth to avoid cliché and because I find that creating people for a story is a very good way of stirring up extra plot ideas) and once I’m satisfied with all of them, I will sit down and type up my outline.

This process does have a downside. I am typing up my outline for Erik Midgard 2 right now and I’m on the 4th draft. It’s a murder mystery, which means getting all the events into a logical order and filling in all the gaps and making sure everything connects and makes sense and that I haven’t forgotten anything I need to include is taking three times as long as normal and it can be pretty frustrating. Planning is not as fun as actually writing. But the very reason I plan before I write is because writing is fun. Creating people and sending them on an adventure and following them to tell the story is something I love doing.

As I mentioned earlier, I have experimented at working without an outline on numerous occasions. While I do appreciate the fun of literally making things up as you go along and the surprises and discoveries that come along the way, I tend to run out of steam pretty quickly. Because I don’t know my story or characters well enough, I go down alleys that lead nowhere, make things happen for no reason because I don’t know what should happen and have people do stuff they would never do because I don’t know them well enough to know they wouldn’t. If I had to put my reason for outlining in a single sentence, it’s because if I don’t know where I’m going, I can’t get anywhere.

But when I do have an outline, when I do know what’s going to happen and why and who it is going to happen to and how it is going to change them, I don’t have to worry about any of the above. When I’ve planned, I never have to worry about “What happens next?” or resort to something as crude as Raymond Chandler’s “Have a man with a gun come into the room” (have something happen for the sake of something happening). I can simply enjoy telling the story. For those who talk about boredom in working from a plan; why did you plan something boring in the first place? An outline does not have to be fixed. Even though I’ve outlined all of my published books, I deviated from every plan as I went along; mostly on occasions when things that looked good in planning did not turn out so well in prose, or I had an idea as I was going along for how to make them better.

The key thing to remember is that writing should be fun. It’s of course impossible to please everybody, but if you are enjoying writing your book, there is a good chance your audience will enjoy reading it. If you achieve that end result, it doesn’t matter if you got there by following a blueprint or throwing seeds and water onto a flowerbed and waiting to see what happens. Also remember that, 99% of the time, the audience won’t be able to tell if a book was planned or not.

(NB: The image for this post is a page of one of P.G. Wodehouse’s outlines for one of his Blandings Castle books. One of the 20th centuries most successful writers – and still going strong in the 21st – Wodehouse used to write outlines so detailed they would often be longer than the finished book).


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