When You Don’t Need an Outline


            One type is the writer who writes the same thing all the time. The standout example here is Anne Rice who, in her vampire books, at least – I’ve kind of lost track of her work recently –was famous (and, among editors, apparently, not in a good way) for refusing to outline or revise anything. Personally, I think this is a very self-indulgent attitude that no one except the very famous (which she is) can get away with. Even so, I feel that much of her work is redundant, wordy, and unnecessary. I always got the feeling while reading her that I was swimming in murky water, hoping to reach some grand place, although the anticipation usually outstripped the payoff for me. (With one notable exception: One of Anne Rice’s early books, Cry to Heaven, is one of my favorite novels of all time. I don’t know if she used an outline for it or not, but it is far different from her vampire stories.)
            From everything I’ve read about her, Rice is a compulsive, obsessive writer who began her meteoric career after the tragic death of her five-year-old daughter by indulging in a years-long orgy of writing and drinking. She was able to channel the chaos of her life into literary form, and the superhuman energy that is borne of grief and rage and despair comes through clearly in her unique, musical prose.
            But she wrote the same type of book again and again, often with the same characters.
            Genre writers, with a formula plot to follow, can also make do without outlines, especially after they’ve done it a few times. I once worked as a ghostwriter for a men’s action/adventure series, and I admit they got easier as I wrote more of them. Chapter One was always the setup, Chapter Two introduced the (ongoing) hero, and Chapter Three began the first complication. I remember finishing one of these 196-page novels in two weeks! But I used an outline, even then.
            I’m telling you, it just makes life easier.
            The other group that doesn’t use outlines is BEGINNING WRITERS. All I have to say to them is Dr. Phil’s recurrent question, “How’s that working for you?” If you’ve been writing the same chapter for five years, maybe you should try making an outline. It doesn’t mean that you’re following a formula, or writing a genre book, or emphasizing the plot above other elements of the novel. It’s just a tool.
            So you don’t have to be one.