Make An Outline!


          Well, maybe not that bad. But a lot of inexperienced young writers balk at the idea of spending time doing anything other than writing. I did myself, and I wasn’t even that inexperienced at the time. I just got bored with outlining, and figured that if I started writing, which I felt more comfortable doing than plotting (which is what outlining basically is), then the details of the story line would just somehow come to me.
            How wrong I turned out to be. The book I’m talking about, although eventually completed, took approximately twice as long to write as any of my other novels. Why? Because without an outline, I had to invent the wheel every day.
            I’ll try to persuade you about the value of an outline as I blather on, but first let me be clear about something: Outlining is NOT what you learned in Middle School – the Roman number I sub A thing. I don’t know what that’s used for, except possibly for torturing students, but it’s not a component of novel writing.
            I mention this because two people have told me that THAT – that ridiculous method of organizing intellectual material – was what they thought I meant when I’d talked about outlining. Suddenly my eyes were opened: I’d often wondered why I felt a wall of resistance when I’d mentioned outlining during the course of my lectures. Well, of course you wouldn’t want to do that as a preliminary to writing a book. I wouldn’t, either.
            Outlining, as I see it, is a list of the major plot developments of your story. You can write it as notes, or as scenes (that’s what I do, so that I get a sense of how I want to present the information). What it is NOT, however, is a SYNOPSIS. A synopsis is a finished work in itself, a polished condensation of your story presented in one or two pages. You offer a synopsis of your book to agents and editors who don’t want to commit to reading the whole manuscript. If they like it, they’ll ask for more. When I submit work for the first time to someone, I usually give them the first two chapters of whatever I want to sell them, plus the most rousing synopsis I can craft. Sometimes I also include editorial notes such as what other (famous) books my novel might be compared to, how long it is, and some biographical material. Also, a synopsis, unlike the working outline, might address the overall theme of the book. In short, it’s a presentation tool.
            The outline, in contrast, is a WORKING tool, your main working tool. It is your guide to what you’re writing. It gives you the order of your plot points and subplot points. It’s your roadmap to get you where you want to go, and without it, you’re going to end up driving in a lot of circles and dead ends.
            No one sees your outline except you. You can change it as you go along. But it will give you the long view of your book, and will prevent you from making horrible spur-of-the-moment mistakes. Example: Your hero is in a gunfight. Without an outline, you might fall in love with the idea of him being wounded. But then you’re stuck for months (fiction time) of recuperation and incapacitation. That might well change your whole story. What if Hero’s in a second gunfight and can’t fire a gun? It’s SO much better to know what’s going to happen to him ahead of time. Remember, your story ought to be a surprise to the reader, not to you. Besides, you’ll have plenty of surprises during the course of writing a novel, even with an outline to show you the way. 
            And speaking of surprises, finding out after having written four or five hundred pages that you are unable to finish your novel because you’ve utterly screwed up the story is a surprise you really, really don’t want to experience. Trust me