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Writing Right: The Blog

HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I SPEND OUTLINING MY NOVEL?

Someone asked this online the other day. I had a thought or two to contribute to several other responses she received. Here they are.

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I think I'm in love.

 

Seriously, I'm so glad you asked this question. And, I'm just a little disappointed in some of the other responses you've received, even the ones from people who mean well but aren't, umm, right on top of things. For example, outlines are not like a "safety net." They are the scaffolding and the foundation of your novel. They help you build it firm and strong from the ground to the roof ridge.

 

And to chastise people who use an outline as not recognizing writing as a "creative endeavor"? Well, that same guy is right. IF you don't give a damn about selling, working as a professional novelist and author, or making writing your future. That's when writing is a walk in the park, a kiss in the dark, and a creative endeavor.

 

Of course, all writing is a creative endeavor. At all times. But, if that's all you want, keep a diary. If you have hopes and dreams and aspirations of making it as a full-time freelance writer and author, you'd better look for more than a "creative endeavor" to sustain you. You'd better look for quality writing that's more than an expression of your creativity. You'd better look for sustainability.

 

Then, too, I love the respondent who fell right into the trap you set: "It should take at least a day …" Another well-meaning but arrogant and ignorant response. How can that person tell you how much time to devote to creating an outline that is going to virtually make or break your entire novel? Wow. What's wrong with that picture?

 

Even the "Professor (1987-present)" bungled her response when she suggested taking time to write an outline may be "procrastination." Really? And where is that demarcation line? How do you know when how much time you're taking is too much time?

 

The truth is you take as long as you need.

 

What? Another "junk response"?

 

Hardly. Here's why.

 

If you spend an hour on an outline, and you're absolutely, completely, undeniably satisfied that it captures the entire essence of your novel, go for it. Start fleshing it out. Start writing.

 

If you spend a month working on an outline, and you're still uncertain that you've captured the essence of your book, you'd better spend more time refining and thinking things through.

 

Oh, wait, thinking? There's thinking involved in outlining?

 

Yes, I'm afraid so. And a lot of it. Not only thinking, but thinking about your story and characters and where they are at any given time and where they're going and when they're going to get there and what's going to happen to them along the way.

 

Then, while you're thinking, invest a little time in envisioning the imagery. Let things play out in your mind like a scene in a film playing out on your television set. That's what excellent writing is all about—conveying images from your mind to your reader's mind. Anyone can write with words; only the best writers write with images with which their readers can readily identify. If they can see it or envision it, you've succeeded.

 

Finally, when you have all that put together, and you've assembled all the salient details into a chapter-by-chapter outline (you know, sort of like the "trigger points" for your memory as you go along), you're ready to start filling in the blanks. Begin with the outline for chapter one, and add on, fill in, and flesh out what you have as you write. Yes, this really is the fun, the creative part of writing.

 

And for all those "pantsers" out there to whom others like to attribute the purity of the art form we call creative writing, bull cookies! Sure, you can fly by the seat of your pants without an outline, but you'll fail. In the end, your book will be garbage. Or, more likely, you'll get partially through the writing, realize you're hopelessly lost, and then go back to try to retrofit or reconstruct an outline of what you've already written and what's left to be done. Either way, you've lost time, money, and creativity in the process. And very possibly  focus.

 

Are there really successful authors who can just "wing it" and come up with literary perfection? Yes. In a way. And that way is by "outlining" the book in their minds--even if only subliminally--before ever setting out to write it. Some people have good enough memories to be able to do that. Most don't. If you're one who does, congrats! You're still outlining; you're just not writing it down. Thinking, imagining, digging, revising—they're all part of writing, with or without an outline. But if you're working from a written outline, you'll find so much more success so much more quickly that you'll be amazed.

 

So, is spending a day outlining enough time? I think everyone in the real world knows by now how absurd that notion is. No two people think or write alike. Or outline.

 

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any follow-up questions, and I'll be happy to try to answer them. I'm at This Website.

 

Meanwhile, smoke if you've got 'em.

 

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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.

 

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