Writing My Novel: Outlining?

Last week, I wrote about the writing bug that bit me. Now, I’ve decided to write a novel. And it was in no chapter 1small part due to the overwhelming response I got from readers and fellow bloggers who share my passion. So thank you.

Over the next year or so, I plan to have a series of posts chronicling my journey of actually getting a drafted manuscript. I’ll call it “Writing My Novel,” and while it may not be regular, it will certainly be honest and candid. This is the first installment because I’ve already hit that first sticky place in writing a novel:

I have two early drafts for novels sitting at ~10k words. Both are concepts I love. One is a mainstream horror novel with religious undertones, and the other is my take on Young Adult SF–think space opera with high fantasy conventions.

My wife and I have now both read through them and we solidly agreed that the YA SF had much more potential (as well as being just more interesting).

So now, I have the beginnings of a story sitting in Google Docs, a few ideas rolling around in my head of where I want the story to go, and no idea exactly what comes next. Diving in and just writing is my usual style, but this time, it does not feel just right.

This time, I definitely want to outline.

Here’s the thing: I’ve never outlined before. Never. Not fiction, at least. I’ve mapped essays, sure, but fiction has always been a seat-of-my-pants thrill ride where I got to see what came next as the characters did. OutlineThere was no rhyme or reason, but it was organic and fun.

And it never once left me with an even close to complete manuscript. I would always get that block about “what comes next?” and sit and think for a while and lose interest and go do something else that required less work.

So this time, I am certain I need the discipline that comes from writing an outline.

And it’s hard.

Sitting down with my handy-dandy Moleskine notebook and staging scene after scene is a daunting task. But it’s not daunting in that I’m scared of plotting out 50-100k words; it’s scary in that I am afraid I’m writing too much for the outline. I’m afraid that I’m trying to micromanage too much, and I’m not letting the characters actually come alive.

Typically, I look at outlining as a skeleton of ideas: single sentence topics with single sentence bullet points supporting it. Not a lot of details, but the basic frame of the story is there to keep me on track for when I lose my way. Extraneous details have no place.

But that’s not working for my fiction this time.

IBooks find myself writing full paragraphs about these characters and what they’re doing. I’m going into detail about what the characters are talking about, even if it’s not a dialogue-heavy scene. I am writing out detailed plot notes rather than outlining, and I worry about that a little.

I honestly think that worry is unfounded, but still I worry because of the amount of time it is taking to write that much out. That much time could be spent writing and revising the actual manuscript rather than an outline/notes.

I’ve heard advice on both sides of the fence, but what I get most is “do what works.” But since I do not know what works, I have to go with what feels right. By the end of the book, I might have filled the entire second half of my notebook with notes, but at least they’re there, and I never lost an idea because “it was too detailed to bother with.”

This time, I’m going with detailed notes as my plot outline, I think. Since I’m working with a newfound desire to “do it right,” I might as well move away from the tried-and-not-so-true methods that failed me in the past.

I mean, just planning ahead is a step in the right direction for me as far as taking this seriously goes. I usually sit down with a few good ideas and once I’ve used them up, I peter out. This time I’m doing it right. I’m treating this like the job it is and not going in half-cocked. When I get out of the planning stage, I’ll be fully ready because–for once–I will know exactly where I am going when I start writing.

So what about you guys and gals? How many of you write from an outline or notes? And who out there is a seat-of-the-pantser like I typically am? Why do you find that way works best for you?

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. When I write shortish fiction, I just run with it. If I’m writing anything longer, I start with an outline so that the major beats and logic make sense.

    It’s a bit like the difference between “straight ahead” animation and “key frame” animation. Straight ahead animation tends to be a bit more fluid since the artist is more concerned about the action in and of itself, but it doesn’t conform well to a schedule or a budget. Key frame animation can feel a little more mechanical, since you’re working with key poses and timing, and the stuff in between might feel a wee bit cramped to fit, but it works much better in an overarching structure (especially if there are several elements that need to interact). And then there’s rotoscoping, effectively tracing over film of live action…

    This can be mapped pretty well to writing. Straight ahead animation is like writing just to get things down, writing what the characters do and running with a plot idea, wherever it may roam. Key frame animation is like writing with an outline, where you’ve mapped things out ahead of time, and the overall structure makes sense, perhaps at the cost of a bit of fluidity. Rotoscoping is like trying to write in the style of an author you like, copying the pacing and stylistic elements.

    In animation, I’ve found that keyframes are the best way to go for me, but sometimes, you can space them out a bit and animate straight ahead in between key frames to get that character a bit more lively. If the keyframes are fudgeable, that’s great, too, since the straight ahead segments can change the keys.

    Long, tortured, artist-nerd analogy aside, I write the same way; have an outline that makes sense, and then write straight ahead with it in mind, and I leave some wiggle room in the outline for when serendipity strikes. (Oh, and I consider “world building” and character background to be part of the outline. I do those first so that the characters feel real within a “lived in” world.)
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Allods Tidbits and Beta Keys =-.

    1. I think the important part in it is the “wiggle room” as you call it, Tesh. That’s one of my big fears, getting so far into an outline that when I get to a given spot in the actual manuscript that I realize my character would have never acted that way to begin with, but I had an arbitrary roadmap that said he/she would.

      1. I really think (and remember my disclaimer on Twitter that I don’t REALLY know what I am talking about) that the combination of discipline and hard, hard work combines with that idea you mention in this reply of “realizing [your] character would never have acted that way to begin with.” I think when you are doing the type of detailed work you are doing here, it is because it is in you and wanting to get out. You are going to know these characters and what happens to them so much better by putting on the page what is in your head. (If you didn’t have that much detail trying to get out, I think your simple outline would be just fine.)

        If and when one of your characters starts telling you something different, it is going to be one of those moments when your inspiration takes over… and that is good. You will have to argue with her (Aren’t muses always female?) about who is right. One of you will win. Either way the story wins. I don’t think your roadmap would be arbitrary but like every good story, the journey usually takes us to unexpected places. Your journey may not follow this map but I can’t believe that if you are serious about this, that either the planning or the detour wouldn’t be worth it.
        .-= MaryLUE´s last blog ..Time Suckers =-.

        1. I think that’s great advice, Mary: the story wins either way. Either I’ve written a good character or I’ve written a good plot, and both ways enhance the final product more than my whining about how much detail to include ever could. 😉

  2. I am a planner.

    I simply can not just “sit and write”. I tried a few times, and it is fun. Sometimes, it gives you fresh ideas as you go. But the bad thing is that you always have to come back and make changes that will make the work in question truly coherent. In other words, you have to have a plan at some point. To me, it’s much easier to plan ahead. I hate to get back and add new scenes, delete the unnecessary ones, add/delete chapters and characters that don’t make sense.

    So, I make an outline. A detailed one. A very detailed one. First, I make a “skeleton” as you call it. I need to know the beginning, the middle and the end. Yes, I must know how it’s going to end (or at least what I want to achieve). I need to have a clear idea what I really want to say with my work (plot-wise, if not “message”-wise). I need to know who the characters are, and at least a basic plot.

    Then, I plan a little more. If I know that something must happen to my main character in order for him to go on a journey, I figure out what that “something” is. This way, I plan the plot. I also learn more about my characters (and their background) and I do research. I do massive research (well, as massive as possible) because I want to know if something is possible or not at this early stage. I don’t want to make… ahem, Quileute legends and later learn the real Quileutes are quite different with different beliefs. The sooner I know about this stuff, the better.

    I think I also plan the “technical” details, in the form of chapters. I need to know what’s going to happen in each chapter before I start writing.

    And that’s it. I start writing when I reach this stage. So, I don’t really plan dialogue, I don’t plan every single scene, but I know what is going to happen and sometimes how it’s going to happen.

    What can I say? To me, the only restriction on planning is “until it becomes way too planned”. It’s “way too planned” when the story becomes boring to me; when I already know so much about it that I don’t feel the need to write that story anymore. It did happen to me once or twice, but it was actually due more to the change of interest (I lost interest in the story) than the outlining.

    PS-I think it’s best, when it comes to characters and worldbuilding, to always know as much as you can. All the background, all the rules of your world, all the major history. Majority of this won’t go into the novel itself, but your world and your characters will feel more real if you know all those details.

    1. My creative writing teacher in undergrad told us that we should know every detail about a character before we write the first word of our story. I think the example she gave was that you should know what kind of toothpaste your character would use. Even if there will not be any mention of the character brushing her or his teeth, that’s how intimately she thought you should know your protagonist.

      1. And Jennifer, I’m not sure if I ever want to know a character that well. I honestly believe that takes some of the fun out of writing if a character doesn’t surprise the author now and then. Being so intimate with a character would likely make me end up with a “Mary Sue” character–yes, I know I took that term from you–like the uninteresting one in the horror draft you read.

    2. I do like the idea you have of the worldbuilding coming in the outlining process. To me, I’ve got this world in my head and I was going to expand it in the actual text, but it does make a lot more sense to keep notes of it so I can refer back as I write.

      Writing that out makes me feel really unprepared for this. It seems so obvious now…

    1. I actually don’t know the end yet. I have a few ideas, but none of them feel right. I have a few fantastic scenes somewhere in the middle, but nothing that screams “ending” to me.

        1. I would, but I know that a first-timer pitching a definite series is a quick way to not get represented by an agent. It’s too hard to sell. I prefer to leave it open ended but have a decent enough resolution that it //could// be the end.

          Think the end of Star Wars: A New Hope.

  3. All I do is outline it seems. I can give you the background, traits, habits, twitches, preferences, loves, hates, childhood diseases, and anything else about any fictional character I’ve ever created. And the same goes for settings. I can create a universe worth of ecosystems, countries, animals, plant life and physics, but not once does it seem I can detail a story out of these.

    I think that is why I like D&D so much. I make these worlds and characters, and then the game, campaign and other players fill in the rest.

    That, and we use homemade pyros in our games. Any reason to use fire is a good reason.

    1. I’m tempted, John, to pick up some D&D character sheets now and go to town with my main characters. It’s not a half-bad idea, actually, given that it’s a SFF book and a lot of the content would/could still be applicable.

      Thanks for the idea!

  4. Hi Beej, I meant to reply to you about this on twitter the other day. Ended up becoming rather occupied and forgetting however. Given the (likely) length of this comment, it’s probably a better idea to do it here anyhow. 😛

    My thoughts on the matter are that you will likely want both a clear, concise, blow by blow of the major plotpoints from beginning to end AND a more detailed break down of these points, especially where you’ve had a flash of inspiration. Don’t trust yourself to ‘just remember it’ later. You may not. It’s extremely frustrating. 😛

    The thing with this is that it works sort of like a map. It can guide you through the boggy lands of ‘Middlesville’ and see you through to the other side. Yet, just because you’ve outlined a specific path through, doesn’t mean that it is the only path available.

    You may find a snag or roadblock on your journey and have to divert (stupid mapping software not taking account of roadworks, ugh!) elsewhere, or you may hear from a friendly local (one of your characters!) of a better path through.

    Basically — you still have room to organically move through the story. The path can change given sufficient reason. Your characters may evolve beyond what you planned for them at the beginning of the journey. This is OK. Let this happen if it seems right.

    If you find yourself woefully lost however with narry a clue, refer to the outline, look over the details you set yourself, and see if they can’t help ya get on through.

    Another way I guess you could go, would just be to restrict yourself (as much as possible) to just the clear cut concise outline, and let the story fill in the specifics for you as you go, which you can fill into a more detailed outline as you please.
    .-= Naithin´s last blog ..Contemplation, Changes and Progress =-.

    1. Quick little tip I just came across while reading elsewhere about the ‘Show don’t tell’ stuff to refresh it in my mind and relearn the times when it’s ok to ignore this ‘rule’ (such as non critical moments or scenes where you just want time to pass rapidly.)

      One of the suggestions as when to ignore the ‘Show don’t tell’ rule?

      In yer outline. Tell to your hearts content, I saw a comment from a Tor editor that mentioned some of the outlines he’s seen say things like, ‘And then an exciting battle happens’.

      The trick then becomes taking this ‘telling’ and turning it into a fantastic showing for the actual story.

      Perhaps this is part of the issue you’re having with excessive length in yer outline?
      .-= Naithin´s last blog ..Contemplation, Changes and Progress =-.

  5. This is really exciting stuff. I would love to write a book one day. I will be glued to this site for updates on your Horror novel, I love anything occult.

    Will be tweating this right now.

    It does sound like you are worrying too much though, Let loose and have fun with it, your passion is so-called becuase it’s not a chore!

    great post make sure you update as often as you can!
    .-= TheInfoPreneur´s last blog ..I’m Going Back to School, For You! =-.

    1. I do hope to get back to the horror novel eventually. I have a few of the conventions in the horror novel that would actually work well in the YA SFF book because of the hybrid genres I’m working with.

      I agree; I’m worrying too much. I’m going to stop that. Soon. I promise.

      I’m a worrier. 😉

  6. I used to utterly and completely against outlining. I feel like it’s the way to write essays, not creative writing.

    However, I’ve really come to appreciate jotting down notes here and there. The more I write, the more I feel the structure of things congeal into a viable format. Without outlines, I would not be able to see the clearer picture this early on.

    Having said that, the end product is NEVER exact to the outline that I conceived in the beginning, so I don’t let my creative side get boggled down by earlier designs, which is my main fear towards outlining.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..Glee 1×13 ‘Sectionals’ =-.

    1. That’s exactly how I feel, Robert. I feel it has a great place academically, but creatively, it’s too rigid. I’m finding that as I do it, however, I like the structure it gives me because I’m still “creating,” which is something very important to me.

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