Outlining: A Necessary Evil

I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?

Well …

Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.

Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.

When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.

And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.

When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.

Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.

How do you outline, if at all?

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