Left to my own devices, I tend to be a by-the-seat-of-my-pants sort of writer. More often than not, this gets me into trouble–not only do I end up meandering all over the place, it’s hard to finish things, and it makes writer’s block a true dead end.
When I stalled out on my current novel project, I read a book called First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Weisner, which I recommend to everyone who wants to learn how to outline. The title is a bit misleading, because at the end of the 30 days, you don’t have a true manuscript, you have a very, very detailed scene-by-scene outline. Although I didn’t go through the entire 30 day process, the book helped me get somewhat of a grasp on the method, and I am now a thorough convert.
I still meander. I am very much a discovery writer, and my favorite part of writing is the unexpected ways in which things often develop. Occasionally, inspiration will tug me away from my outline, and I’ll go with it just to see where it leads me. Sometimes I end up revising my outline to include those new ideas, and sometimes they’re just a fun diversion before getting back to the real story.
To me, the most valuable aspect of outlining is how effective a weapon it is against writer’s block. A seat-of-the-pants writer just goes where the Muse takes them. But what happens when the Muse doesn’t show up? She’s busy elsewhere, helping out some other writer. Without an outline, writer’s block stops me dead in my tracks, and I can’t progress until I’ve somehow broken down that wall–and who knows how long that will take?
When I have a good outline, on the other hand, I can skip around in the story, writing in a non-linear fashion if I feel so inclined. There have been many times that I have looked over the scene I just wrote and thought: “Wow, that is such crap.” And then I write the next one. The crappy scene serves as a placeholder until I can come back around and re-write it with (hopefully) a bit more inspiration. Sometimes I will recognize that a scene is just not working, and just put in “Insert thrilling fight scene here” and move on.
This would be impossible without a solid outline, because I wouldn’t have a firm enough grasp on the sequence of events. If I don’t know exactly how a scene/chapter/act is going to unfold, I don’t know what I’m supposed to write in the next one.
Outlining can be an intimidating skill to cultivate, but sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me writing when inspiration fails me.
Picasso once said: “I don’t know what inspiration is, but when it comes, I hope it finds me working.”