How Outlining Saved My Novel

How Outlining Saved My Novel

When I sat down to write the first draft of my first book, I had my protagonist and a handful of scenes firmly in mind. I had a beginning and an ending, and three fun scenes of my character kicking ass and being sassy. I knew who was going to live, who was going to die, who was going to be maimed for life, and a few key points along the way. The rest of the story, I assumed, would work itself out as I typed, flowing from my inner, obviously brilliant, muse.

I was wrong. So very very wrong.

Sixty-thousand words in I found myself in deep trouble. My narrative hadn’t just magically flowed from the goddess of creativity and I’d deviated so far from the main storyline that there was no way to bridge this new convoluted narrative with my originally envisioned ending.

Do you know what could have saved that project from disintegrating? That’s right, an outline. If I would have taken the time to sketch out the measliest plot arch, I would have been able to connect the important dots. Instead I had this: Beginning —> kick ass sassy scenes —> ??????????? —> more kick ass sassy scenes —>End.

Yeah, that wasn’t the best way to begin a project.

Determined not to make the same mistake with my NaNoWriMo 2017 draft I spent most of October pre-writing.

Scene by scene, I plotted the course of my story. It wasn’t an especially literary document, but it did the job. A typical scene entry had a heading, then a few lines and/or bullet points and/or stream of consciousness ramblings that described the main action and goal of the scene. Here’s an example from my outline:

Scene 4: Ashley has her first shift at the Alma House B&B

Show Ashley’s hectic work schedule and financial trouble, as well as her mentor relationship with the owner. Ashley asks for legal advice about Reichenhall and her family’s land, as well as to post an advertisement in the Alma House’s window. At the end of the scene Ashley collides with a stranger who, like Ashley, is a new student at the recently built girl’s campus of the long established Military Boarding School.

Brief, concise, not winning me any awards but exactly the right thing to keep me on track with noveling. Just enough information to remind me about the scene’s content and purpose. Plus, with a complete outline I know what happens next and my writing moved swiftly onward.  

With my scene-by-scene outline in hand I knew exactly where I was headed. I had a map and avoided getting lost in the woods.

This isn’t to say that my story become overly calculated. I had a clear plan to follow but I didn’t follow it to the letter. I like breaking rules, even when those rules are my own, and as I got caught up in the story bursts of inspiration had me scratching off sections of the outline and replacing them with better ideas that came at me out of nowhere in the shower. That’s how it goes.

My outline may barely resemble the finished novel, but I still believe that the outlining was necessary, at least for me. Without a map I wouldn’t have had the confidence to leave the path, to wander in the woods discovering better ways to tell my story.

When it comes to the outlining vs. organic writing debate my only advice is the classic find what works for you. I found that outlining didn’t squash my creativity nor spontaneous inspiration nor the free will of my characters. Writing an outline didn’t kill my muse.

What writing an outline did do is revolutionize my process. This is the first novel length project where I didn’t start floundering mid-way through. I know where I’m headed and  how to get there. I’m making consistent progress on the draft and the end is in sight! Even the pantsiest pantser should give outlining a shot.

If my humdrum scene-by-scene outline isn’t your style, there are many other ways to outlining to try. I plan on doing a future post exploring the pros and cons of each but in the meanwhile here are some useful links to get you started:

Writing a novel is an overwhelming undertaking. Outlining is practical. It makes the task of actually writing less daunting. But is it necessary? No, of course not! The only thing that is necessary is writing. So you do you and I’ll do me. It’s two weeks into NaNoWriMo and I am very happy I did that outlining. What about you?

Happy NaNoWriMo-ing,


In case you missed some of our past Wrimo posts and need a little mid-November pick me up:

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