Oct 212010

With NaNoWriMo coming up, it’s worth addressing the central conceit of the NaNoWriMo concept, which is — if you’ll allow me to take a few liberties that may piss off the punters — that you should just write, no matter what, without pausing — and without an outline. That’s the way to get a novel out of you.

I agree and I don’t. Personally, I like novels that write themselves. But not every novel wants to write itself.

Outlines are a critical part of the novel-writing process for most successful novelists. Their importance simply cannot be overstated. Writers who pump out book after book of quality prose about spunky ballerinas finding romance and homicide detectives hunting serial killers and winemakers solving crimes about cheese — those people almost all write with outlines, and tight ones, too. If it’s your first novel or your hundredth, you should do whatever works for you, but personally I wouldn’t trade the crazed madness of writing a novel without an outline for all the tea in Buckingham Palace.

That’s when the novel seems to write itself. It’s awesome. Writing a novel without an outline is the bomb.

Writers are very much split on whether doing so is a good idea or the most dangerous kind of antisocial lunacy. I tend to fall into the latter camp; writing a novel without an outline is definitely antisocial lunacy and should be avoided if you value your sanity, your interpersonal relationships, your job, the tendons of your forearms — and, most of all, your time.

But you’re not me, and therefore there are no significant consequences to my advocating that you do stupid shit.

Writing a novel without an outline is unquestionably dangerous — you could end up with a mess. The truth is, you’ll probably end up with a mess. If you make a habit of this, you may end up like me — the proud possessor of a hard drive packed with few dozen 20,000-word innovatively-cross-genre turds that steam so bad sometimes you gotta open the windows. But the experience of writing a big narrative with total abandon is something that I simply can’t give up. The problem is, that kind of muse doesn’t necessary come when you call her. She’s much like a cat in that regard. Nine times out of ten she knows you’re looking, and you can bite her.

What outlines can do for a novelist is force you to break your narrative into manageable chunks. When I write novels (or feature-length screenplays) to a tight outline, I lose the experience of sitting there tear-assing through six scenes in a sitting with no idea what’s coming next, which is a hell of a feeling. But like I said. I get that feeling a lot, then realize I have no idea what’s coming next. For this reason, I have many, many more half-novels than novels. Most novelists do.

But I also have many more outlines than novels. Hell, I have more outlines than first chapters! It’s easier for me to write an outline than it is to write a first chapter, and you know who enjoys reading them? Uh…no one. Not even me.

The point is, you can tear through an outline and think you have the framework for a novel. But from a reader perspective, there is no framework for a novel. The framework is the novel.

There’s no one answer as to whether you should outline, except to say that if it works for you, everyone else’s opinion is irrelevant. But it’s worth mentioning that most of the really accomplished genre novelists I know — I mean the kind of people who put out a book a year or more, and have been doing it repeatedly for a while — outline like fiends. Their outlines or “treatments” are incredibly detailed. Why, just this past week, science fiction legend Norman Spinrad, by way of crowdsourcing his novel queries, freely published a 113-page treatment of his next novel. James Ellroy of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia fame writes novel outlines hundreds of pages long, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro once told me she outlines novels so thoroughly that she never has to rewrite (and, in my experience, her novels read tight).

If you’ve never written a novel, there’s a chance when it comes, it’ll just happen. You won’t need an outline because the thing will be winking at you from your computer screen, and you will have just typed END. Sure, everyone you know may think you’ve vanished off the face of the earth, and there may be an eviction notice on the door, and you may be about to get your power shut off because you haven’t paid the bill in twelve weeks. You may need a payment plan with the power company, but you still won’t need an outline. If this is how it goes down, mazel tov.

This sort of first-novel experience occurred with me on two separate occasions. That’s right; I received the lightning strike of having not one but two first novels just kind of explode out of me, in different decades, because they were in thoroughly unrelated genres. It’s an awesome feeling, a little bit like being high. High on life! High on life and six shots of bourbon. And the cocaine exports of Peru and Colombia put together. And these funny pink pills some weird guy in an overcoat sold you for $3 and a bus transfer over on 16th and Mission…

If that sounds like fun, great. If that sounds sustainable over the course of a professional career, you’re either more näive than I am, or you have way bigger brass ones.

If you’ve never written a novel and you’re trying to, or if you’ve written lots of them and you’re trying to write the next one, it won’t do you any good to bellyache about the novel that won’t write itself.

Sometimes you gotta make them write themselves. And then? An outline can be your best friend.


  8 Responses to “Novels That Write Themselves”

  1. Thomas – I’m trying NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Veterans told me to prep, so for the first time, I wrote an outline instead of sort of knowing where I wanted the story to go when I started writing. What I’ve learned is that there’s a huge difference between imagining I know the outline and having to commit to it on paper. I always thought outlining would suck the creativity out of the process. Hardly. While I haven’t plunged into the mad dash for word count yet, the experience of writing a detailed outline has been wonderful. It’s so much easier to go back a few pages in an outline to tighten or change something rather than scrolling through thousands of words and wonder if the adjustment cascades through everything I’ve written. Also, it was easy to see what wouldn’t work in the novel before I wasted time typing it. This is a habit that will stick with me no matter how much I crank out next month.

  2. I have the same experience with outlines — “vague idea” becomes “Man, that can’t be his father, because that would be stupid.” Outlines save an awful lot of rewriting, especially if you’re Chelsea Quinn “80 books and counting” Yarbro, apparently.

    Still, I love that drunken orgy of creativity that comes with an unplanned first draft, or at least the first half of one. If it ever happens again I will have to try to lure it into a Ghostbusters box and keep it in my top drawer next to the jock straps.

  3. You’re a riot! I must remember not to read you while eating or drinking because oh…the spewage caused by unexpected laughter.!

    I can’t decide if you’ve talked me into or out of outlines! I don’t usually use them but then, having just discovered that one of the books I’m working on absolutely sucks because of stupid things that I could’ve kept track of w/an outline…I might convert. If I do, I’m going to whine about it A LOT though because I really get off on the pantster lightning bolt thing.

  4. You\’re a riot! I must remember not to read you while eating or drinking because oh…the spewage caused by unexpected laughter.!

    I can\’t decide if you\’ve talked me into or out of outlines! I don\’t usually use them but then, having just discovered that one of the books I\’m working on absolutely sucks because of stupid things that I could\’ve kept track of w/an outline…I might convert. If I do, I\’m going to whine about it A LOT though because I really get off on the pantster lightning bolt thing.

  5. Good article. I especially like it because I subscribe to outlines for plots and characters. I tend to outline characters more heavily than plots but that’s just me. I also find that these outlines are really handy if you write a sequel or a series. The high points are easy to reference – god forbid you forget a tidbit or two months later! Once the outlines are done…I write by the seat of my pants and let the characters inspire me.

  6. Thanks for the great feedback, everyone. @Cher, I can’t decide myself. I think the idea is to write as much and as many as possible, in different ways, and see what works best. Getting attached to any one story other than the process makes one gun shy.

  7. I used to take pages and pages of notes, but other than outlining big stuff like black moment and plot resolution, I would outline as I went. I call it a plot-pants-plot approach. But I also have an insanely involved revision process which smooths out a lot of the wrinkles.

    But now I’m using Scrivener, and it’s awesome because I can plot, then write, then revise my outline before writing again, which is way more fluid than my old method.

    I’ve been a medical/technical writer for years and am very used to having to produce copy. So I find it a little nuts when folks expect their muse to do all the work. I agree, you can’t force a cohesive story to leap onto the page from nowhere. And at the very least, you can’t do it fast. Otherwise you have a nightmare of revision and rewrite on your hands.

    And I always force myself to finish every story I start. But that’s just me.

    Great post! Thought provoking.

  8. @ Daisy, finishing every story you start is probably a very good policy. At the very least, it forces you to experience the whole plot cycle even if it feels like it’s not working. I think that’s almost always valuable.

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