Outlining Success

One question I have been asked in some recent discussions is whether I’m an outliner or a pantser. In other words, do I outline my stories and books or do I write by the seat of my pants? Over the years, I have written both ways, and I have even combined the two approaches. These days, though, I’m primarily an outliner.

In the most recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin there was an excellent article by C.J. Henderson that dared authors to consider whether or not they were ready for success. People who want to be writers often hear how they need to be prepared to face rejection and failure, but what happens when you’ve stood up to all that and suddenly find yourself with a contract for a book you haven’t written? Part of my personal answer to that question is to be an outliner. Admittedly, this might not work for everyone, but it’s a technique that works for me.

You see, there have been two cases where I tried to write novels by the seat of my pants and failed in my first attempt. The first was Heirs of the New Earth. The second was The Solar Sea. In the first case I wrote myself into a corner and I could see no way out, so I set the novel aside and wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order instead. In the second case, I was getting bogged down in plot and character details that were neat, but didn’t drive the story forward at all. I ended up abandoning that version of the manuscript altogether.

The problem is, when confronted with a contract for a novel or a series of novels, I can’t afford to write myself into a corner or spend too much time on details that don’t matter to the story’s ultimate outcome. Sorting out the major plot points, understanding the novel’s direction, and turning that into an outline is one of the best ways for me to avoid that trap.

With that in mind, let me present some outlining techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Outline on note cards instead of using the computer. Each note card contains exactly one plot or character point. This allows you to shuffle the points and add new points as necessary until you create a strong plot with good character growth. This is exactly the method I used to get out of the corner I had written myself into with Heirs of the New Earth.
  2. Be mindful of your characters and their reactions as you outline. When you create a plot point, think about how all the affected characters will react. Sometimes you’ll find your story comes to life even as you’re writing the outline. In this way, you preserve some of the organic essence you can get when writing by the seat of your pants.
  3. Don’t outline too tightly. Restrict your outline to simple plot points. This gives your imagination some freedom as you’re writing.
  4. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline. If your characters say or do something surprising while you’re writing, let them. Feel free to explore a subplot or a ramification. Your outline is a map, but having a map doesn’t mean there there aren’t multiple ways to reach your objective.

Just to note, I ultimately did write The Solar Sea from scratch by the seat of my pants during the National Novel Writing Month in 2004. So, I’m by no means against being a pantser. That said, I outlined both Owl Dance and my vampire novel Dragon’s Fall. Outlines are useful tools for marking the trail. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the trail periodically and explore the surrounding countryside, though! The outline only exists to help you find your way back to your objective.

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