Outlines and Other False Prophets

Card Catalogue (via Wiki Commons)I love reading what others have to say about writing. I can get sidetracked from actual productivity for hours reading what others have to say about their own writing processes. Not sure what it is that attracts me so thoroughly. I guess I’m hoping for some nugget of truth that will transform my own writing process to a fast-track, perfect-first-draft version of itself. The reality, of course, is that it’s a process, and every nugget I’ve collected has informed my process to some degree or other, usually for the better.

This post is about that stuff writers normally associate with good writing process that, for one reason or another, hasn’t worked for me, and what I do to compensate for these missing elements in my writing travels.


Ah, outlines. Arguably, the single most controversial topic about the writing path. I’ve tried writing without outlines–allowing the story to grow organically from one word to the next, flowing from scene to scene without much sense of the future, finding power in harnessing the present moment. I’m doing it now, in fact. But it turns out that when I stop writing for the night, it’s harder to pick up the next day, because I don’t know where I was going to go. The present of last night is lost in the future of this morning. And my story ends up disjointed, varied in tone, and to be honest, kind of boring.

For me, writing without an outline is fine for flash fiction or shorter stories I can finish in a day or two. Some of my best work is done that way, thanks in part to long binges of writing I had to do to meet college class deadlines when I inevitably procrastinated till the last second. But my longer stories need the planning an outline provides.

Participants in National Novel Writing Month are told “no plot, no problem.” And for the purposes of getting words down on the page, this is true. I’ve done it myself and managed to crank out a novel in a matter of months. But the story came out flat. There was no real plot, and it became a problem. Had I created some kind of plan prior to writing, I could have avoided having to rewrite great swathes of the story to incorporate twists and character arcs I didn’t think of until after the fact.

Here’s where the “but” comes in.

I’ve also tried writing WITH an outline, and that’s almost as bad as trying to write without one. Because the truth is, you can’t know what’s going to happen without getting down in the ditch and digging. At least, I can’t. For me, figuring out a story using outline form is like planting a garden with paper flowers. Other authors combat this issue by leaving the outline open-ended. Keeping it a “living document” lets you edit it as you write and discover something you thought about a character’s plot-line actually turns out to be completely different. This is fine and all, but then what’s the point of the outline in the first place?

I’ve come up with two things that help me plan before writing while avoiding the outline trap. The first is a cloud map.

Creating a cloud map (topic bubbles connected by lines to other topic bubbles) allows me to make connections between characters, events, and themes that would be really hard to duplicate in an outline. A cloud map also allows me to see elements, both good and bad, that I had previously not noticed when thinking about my story in a more ephemeral way. For example, I recently created a cloud map for my current YA novel project with my four main characters as the four main bubbles. As I was connecting the supporting cast of characters to my main characters, I noticed that each of my four main characters had an important father figure with which they had a problematic relationship. I honestly had no idea that one of the themes of the story was daddy issues, but apparently it is. I’d never have discovered this if not for the cloud map.

The second thing I use to plan is a detailed synopsis. Now I know what you’re thinking: the synopsis is supposed to be something you create AFTER you finish your story, because it’s purpose is to be a marketing tool for your novel. I beg you, do not relegate this invaluable tool to the back-end of your writing process. Writing a synopsis at the beginning of a project allows you to get your jumble of ideas onto the page without spending weeks and months of dialogue, description, plot, and characterization going in the wrong direction before you notice it. A detailed synopsis, written in the present tense as if you’re listing the events of the story to a third party, can take just a few days and save you months of painful editing. Trust me on this.

If outlines work for you, great. Go fourth and bullet-point. But if you just can’t get your jumbled brain to create that way, try cloud mapping and synopsis instead.


The devil is in the details. Setting your story in a place you’ve never been? You can easily get sidetracked Googling the hell out of subway-station layouts and the location of ritzy versus slumish neighborhoods. Again, speaking from hours upon hours of digressive experience here. Is it really that important to get the descriptions just right? Is there really no other way to write around it? Well, no, probably not. But research does NOT belong at the beginning of your novel project. It belongs firmly ensconced in the editing phase of your project. If you find yourself Ctrl+Tabbing to the Internet every five minutes to grab the name of an eating establishment, get thee to a wireless-less coffee shop and take away all temptation. You’ll never get the words on the page if you keep distracting yourself.

In my mind, research is something you should only do the BARE MINIMUM of. Novels are not, for the most part, travelogues. If your novel IS a travelogue, you may not be focusing enough on characterization and plot. Stories are about people in the context of places. Only rarely are the places themselves the characters/plot of the story.

Now, sometimes I can’t avoid having to do research during the first draft. For example, the Ukranian mob plays a biggish role in my current novel project. Do I know anything about the Ukranian mob? No. Not one damn thing. So here’s the problem. Do I spend weeks sifting through all the crap on the Internet about organized crime? Do I check scholarly tomes about it out of the library? Do I call and interview mob bosses, FBI agents, etc.? The answer is, I would never write another word if I had to do any of that. So here are my research shortcuts: documentaries, Hollywood movies, and YouTube videos.

You’d be amazed by the wealth of information you can absorb in a two-hour History channel special. So why let someone else’s extensive research go to waste? Remember, nine times out of ten, the thing you have to research is simply a backdrop or a foil for what you’re REALLY telling your story about, so don’t let the devil get you. Get out from under the details and go write your story!

Writing Groups

Okay, before chucking the rotten tomatoes at me, let me explain. There is a time and a place for writing groups. Writing groups are tremendously wonderful things. But there is a time when having a writing group is the worst thing you can do to your writing. And that time is while you’re writing.

Jack Heffron writes in The Writer’s Idea Book that ideas are like grape-flavored triangles. If you let them wander off into the ether, you’ll get an inferior juice product. You need to funnel those triangles back into the juice vat in order to get the extra zing. If this analogy makes no sense to you, read the book. It’s excellent.

Seriously, though, if you’ve written one chapter and you share that chapter with your writing group, you are doing yourself no favors. They can give you advice about how to change it, how to make it better, but then you get caught up editing and re-editing that first chapter and never get on to chapter two!  Once again, I am speaking from experience here.

There is a caveat to this one. If you really don’t know how your main character comes off sounding to a reader, or if you want some brainstorming about which direction to take your plot, a writing group can give great advice. But a lot of the time, four heads can just confuse the issue–too many cooks, and all that. It’s your story. You are the only one who can write it.

So those are my thoughts on the three false prophets of the writing process. What are your writing false prophets and pitfalls? What do you do to avoid them while still getting the benefits they are generally thought to provide?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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