How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Outline

I have not always been an outliner. Like many, I had a superstitious fear of revealing the endings of stories, even to myself, for fear that it would suck the joy out of writing them.  Rather I was, as the writing jargon would have it, a “pantser”:  an author who writes as the old-time pilots used to, by the seat of their pants.  I had some systems for keeping track of new ideas, and some ways to brainstorm when I ran out of them, but from day to day, I had no document to keep me on track, just a vague notion of who I was writing about and what sort of story it would be.

The drafts for my new series with DAW were not bad.  They did what I wanted them to do, fulfilling that vague notion I had in mind.  It didn’t really occur to me until I was going back and forth with my agent and new editors that the vague  notion might not be enough, or that the resulting structure, while enjoyable, did not have the power that it could.  And so, they asked for an outline.  A new one, which would take the series in larger, more exciting directions.  With dread in my heart, I complied.

I veered from pole to pole:  either I would kill the ideas when I then had to write the scenes, or I would simply never have any good ideas and would instead kill my nascent publishing contract.  But I did the job, and I am now writing book 2, the first covered by this new outline.  I feared, most of all, that I would become bored when it came to the writing.  And I must now reveal the simple truth that this process has allowed me to discover:  My first idea is almost never the best one.

Yes, I like to think it is. I like to think the thrill I get when I think of a story idea or plot point means that I’ve got the best idea *ever.*  In fact, the outline often means getting two or three less-good ideas out of the way, during the process of generating the outline, then stretching for something even stronger when I’m actually drafting.

There are indeed scenes, as I feared, that I am not interesting in writing although they had seemed like such great ideas at the time, and were adequate to getting editorial permission to go ahead with the draft.  Actually, feeling unenthusiastic about the outline gives me the impetus to write the scene better than I had planned.  To propose new what-ifs to the story problem that scene needs to solve. The outline helps me to frame the problem, but doesn’t always provide the best solution. Instead, it provides a springboard for generating new solutions.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in fantasy, fiction, writing advice, writing process, writing series. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Outline

  1. Elaine Isaak says:

    I don’t know that I’ll ever make the transition myself–I rather enjoy the leap into the unknown implied by the empty page.

  2. Fascinating process of discovery! Thanks for sharing! I’ve always been a character-driven “pantser” but am writing my new historical novel plot-first. It’s terrifying to try something so different from what I usually do, but I love what I have (including a synopsis and a circular map) and where the story’s going. I’ve always subscribed to the theory “if it doesn’t surprise the writer, it won’t surprise the reader,” so this time around learning about the characters and how they react will be what engages and surprises me.

    • ecambrose says:

      Thanks for stopping by!
      At some point, you *will* be surprised by the discoveries and plot turns. But in the outline phase, initially, rather than the draft (and maybe again there, too). You’re just shifting the moment of surprisal. I’m curious about this map that you mentioned. . .

  3. Yes, definitely I expect to be surprised and I have been already by how the outline has changed. (This was, really and truly, supposed to be a contemporary story, and an object I was writing about was so interesting I made up a history for it, and voila, a whole novel got going.) The map was of the hero’s journey–very helpful. Have you read Joseph Campbell? There’s a picture of mine in the beginning stages over on my blog (maybe four or five posts back) if you want to get an idea of what the circle looks like on a wall-sized Post-It!

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