Should you outline that novel or not? 9 considerations

Should you plan out your novel before you actually write it, in words that you want other people to eventually read?

That’s a good question.

Most writers agonize at some point about the choice between outlining a novel in advance versus discovery writing it. (Note: I refuse to use the term “pantsing”, as it’s a little too cutesy for my tastes.)

To begin with the conclusion: Yes, and no….and maybe.

I am not going to mandate a method here. I am going to lay out some considerations that you should keep in mind when making this decision for yourself.

Therefore, this will be a somewhat free-ranging discussion, rather than a linear argument leading to the absolute resolution that you must do it this way.

An emotional issue

When this issue is discussed in various online writing forums, there is often a lot of emotion and drama involved. (Imagine that, on the Internet!)

This is because most writers are extremely conflicted themselves. Art, after all, is a combination of ideas that just pop into the brain for no apparent reason, and decisions that one must consciously make. 

For a number of years in my youth I took guitar lessons. I found out that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician. But having studied music, I can tell you this: When you see Iron Maiden or Metallica jamming onstage, there is an entire system of order underlying all that. Not only are there rules, there is mathematical precision.

At the same time, there is also a large degree of inspiration, of purely individual choices. This is why Iron Maiden doesn’t sound like Air Supply.

And so it is with writing. You have to balance chaos with order. Most writers are constantly uneasy about where the line between the two should be drawn. Many of us tend to swing back and forth between outlining and discovery writing, depending on our moods, and how the last project went.

Hence the emotions that surround the debate.

1.) There are bestselling authors in both camps.

Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Connelly are discovery writers. John Grisham, James Patterson, and Ken Follett are meticulous outliners. The late Robert Ludlum’s outlines were often small books in their own right.

The proof here being: Either method can result in a quality product—quality defined as “pleases many readers and makes enough money to fill an ocean liner.”

2.) You can discovery write mystery and thriller fiction, too.

I once read an online essay (I forget where) alleging that Stephen King only discovery writes because most of his stories involve small numbers of protagonists battling supernatural forces. The argument here seems to be that he doesn’t have many balls in the air, and he can change the operating rules at will.

That might be true of some of his novels: The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. In 2014 and 2015, however, King published the much acclaimed Bill Hodges Trilogy. I read the first of these books, Mr. Mercedes.

Mr. Mercedes, at least, is basically a hard-boiled detective novel (and it’s a pretty good one, too.) The book contains no supernatural elements to speak of.

Michael Connelly, another discovery writer, is the author of the popular Harry Bosch detective novels. (I’ve read every one of these ever published.) Connelly writes almost exclusively about the world of forensics, police procedure, and criminal activity.

And he doesn’t use an outline. Connelly told an interviewer in 2014: “I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline.”

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) wrote what might be called literary horror. His stories are heavily weighted with mood and description, but the plots are often kind of thin.

This suggests that H.P. Lovecraft was a discovery writer. Wrong. Lovecraft indicated in several pieces of correspondence that he was an outliner.

3.) There are only two nonnegotiable factors: story structure, and a system for keeping track.

Whether you discovery write or outline, you have to have a knowledge of the elements of story: rising incident, lock-in, climax, etc.

Knowledge of story structure can be acquired by osmosis. You’ve spent your life watching films, television dramas, and reading stories, after all. But it’s probably worthwhile to read at least a few books on the subject, too.

There are many good books on story structure, but the best might be Robert McKee’s Story. McKee wrote this book for screenwriters, but its content can be easily applied to novel and short story writing.

No matter how you write, you also need a system for keeping track of what’s already happened in your story. Who’s been killed off? Who was involved in that heinous crime that occurred in Chapter 10?

Many beginning writers forget this. Then they find themselves 50,000 words into a discovery written story, and chronically unsure of whether the next plot point will make sense in relation to previous ones.

A simple solution is to write a brief summary of each chapter after you’ve written it. You can do this in Excel, Word, or on a legal pad.

(I personally prefer Scrivener. The use of Scrivener is beyond the scope of this essay; but Scrivener’s index card system facilitates organized discovery writing.)

The idea here is that you’re creating an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline, a record of what you’ve already written, versus a plan of what you should write.

4.) Outlining in advance may lead to repetitive stories that feel “thin”.

I’m a huge fan of John Grisham, a noted outliner. But I can’t help noticing that many of Grisham’s stories repeat the same character types and plot devices.

Grisham’s stories often involve a secret cache of ill-gotten money, often in a secret bank account in the Caymans. Many of his stories feature an idealistic-but-reluctant attorney. There is frequently a big, shadowy corporate, governmental, or organized criminal faction directing things behind the scenes. More than one Grisham novel has ended with a mad dash for the money.

James Patterson, on the other hand, writes novels that are technically competent but emotionally thin—at least to me. Trashing James Patterson is a favorite avocation of lesser-selling novelists. (Even Stephen King has taken potshots at James Patterson.) I won’t go there. But I seldom find myself emotionally engrossed in a James Patterson novel. And Patterson outlines everything.

(Note: The comparatively mechanical style of James Patterson novels may have something to do with the fact that most James Patterson novels are written between Patterson and a cowriter. (This explains his uber-prolific output.))

5.) Outlining in advance may lead to procrastination.

This seems counterintuitive at first glance. An outline should result in highly efficient, prolific output, right? Because with an outline, the writer always knows what she’s going to write next.

Not necessarily. Some writers find that after they’ve thoroughly outlined a story, that story is “done” so far as they’re concerned, and they’re ready to move on to something new. The actual writing of the outlined story becomes a chore.

The idea here is that discovery writing preserves enthusiasm—a key factor in any form of artistic output. Or, as Jonathan Franzen stated:

“You have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, then it becomes an adventure…And I have almost a cult belief that if it’s fun for the writer, and kind of an adventure for the writer, some of that will rub off and feel that way to the reader.”  – Jonathan Franzen

6.) Discovery writing relies on bursts of inspiration

This is the counterpoint to #4 above. We can sometimes come up with good ideas (about anything) through a process of directed brainstorming. More often, though, good ideas seem to arrive upon waking up in the morning, while in the shower, or while standing in line at the grocery.

In other words, the creative process is often random and nonlinear.

If you plan to write a 90,000-word novel from start to finish, without any advance planning, you may find yourself staring at the screen of your laptop during some of your writing sessions.

On the other hand, an outline for a story can be easily assembled over time, in a completely nonlinear manner. You can write down the inciting incident and the climax (if those happen to spring to your mind first), and then list out the other scenes as they occur to you.

Then, when the whole outline has been assembled, you can start writing. At that point, it really is just a matter of execution.

Greg Iles (a discovery writer) once described his writing process for a television interviewer. He stated that he spends most of the year “incubating” his story in his mind. Then he sits down and writes the whole thing in one burst, over the span of just a few weeks.

Lee Child (another discovery writer) writes the Jack Reacher novels the same way. This is how Michael Connelly also works.

Child and Connelly are both trad-pubbed authors. They put out one book per year. If each of their novels is 100,000 words long, that works out to about 275 words per day (a typical piece of office email correspondence). This isn’t exactly a blistering pace; but it’s based on the book release practices and business models of the traditional publishing industry.

Discovery writing, then, with its inevitable fits and starts, is less problematic when you have an entire year to crank out a single book, and when you’re only working on one book at a time.

Most indie authors aim for a more ambitious production schedule. Three or four books per year is common. Some indie authors publish one or more books per month.

That would be tough to achieve through pure discovery writing, and without having multiple books going at once.

A process of outlining and preplanning facilitates nonlinear work, and the management of multiple WIPs (works-in-process) at once. You don’t have to work in 275-word bursts of inspiration.

Is it possible to be prolific, year after year, as a discovery writer? Sure it is. But I’m going to suggest that it might be trickier.

Oh, a final observation about Jonathan Franzen: He publishes a novel an average of once every six years.

7.) Discovery writing sometimes leads to meandering stories.

Back to Stephen King. Almost all of the novels that Stephen King (a discovery writer) wrote early in his career were tightly plotted. Some of those original King novels were long, but there was little fat in them.

Then (I mark It (1986) as the turning point), Stephen King’s style abruptly changed. His novels became much, much longer, and the stories meandered all over the place.

Read The Shining (1977) or Cujo (1981). Then read Duma Key (2008), Under the Dome (2009) or 11/22/63 (2011). You’ll see the difference. I love the tight structure and economical plots of Stephen King’s earlier works. His later novels…not so much. (It used to be possible to adapt a Stephen King novel into 2-hour movie; now, a Stephen King adaptation requires a 12-hour miniseries.)

The tendency of the discovery writer to meander seems to grow more acute as the author becomes a brand name, and, one would assume, less subject to the oversight of editors. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami starts each book with “no plan”. Murakami is known for his oddball plots and surrealism. Nevertheless, there is a clearly structured storyline in some of his early works, like Norwegian Wood (1987).

Fast-forward to 2013, and IQ84. This 1,184-page novel of magical realism is all over the place. I tried to read IQ84. I gave up. Even some longtime Murakami fanatics whom I know were put off by the novel.

I realize that the preceding paragraphs contain an aspect of subjectivity. I like tightly structured thriller-type novels, and that bias is clear here. I don’t like 1,000-page literary novels that go all over the place. That’s clear, too.

Not everyone shares my preferences, of course. You might think that 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s greatest novel, and that Haruki Murakami hit his stride with IQ84.

I’m not tell you which kind of story to like—or to write. I am telling you that discovery writing tends to lead to a.) longer books, and b.) lots of subplots and segues.

8.) You don’t have to do it one way or the other.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that you shouldn’t do it entirely one way or the other.

In the beginning, especially, you should try both methods, to see how each one feels—and the results that each method produces for you. Where writing is concerned, the acronym YMMV, “your mileage may vary” definitely applies.

You might come up with a hybrid method. It may be helpful to think of this as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Perhaps you’ll want to plot out the major moments in your story, and then discovery-write your way between these points. That’s perfectly valid.

Other writers brainstorm scene ideas, and then structure the scenes they’ve thought up into a coherent story, inevitably adding and discarding some of the brainstorm work along the way. (Read Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream, for his explanation of “dreamstorming”.

9.) And finally, reevaluate your process at regular intervals.

Your writing process is bound to evolve over time. You may also discover that a method of writing that didn’t work for you two years ago suddenly works for you today.

This is because you’re a different writer than you were two years ago. In the intervening period, you’ve (hopefully) done a great deal of reading and writing.

The important thing is to remember that your writing process must strike a balance between chaos (inspiration) and order (story structure).

In other words, too much woo-woo, and you’ll never get past the dreaming stage. Too much meticulous planning, and…you may spend three years planning a story that you could have easily written in three months.

The power of audiobooks

As a tool to increase your reading time. In one of his Author Level Up videos, Michael La Ronn discusses how audiobooks can be used to increase your aggregate reading time, when time is at a premium.

Although the video is targeted at authors, the ideas therein could apply to anyone. 

I agree with Mr. La Ronn’s comments about audiobooks, obviously. 

I would add another tip to his list, however: reading while you’re on your stationary bike.

As I’ve noted in this space before, I use my daily cardio ride to catch up on my reading. In my case, that’s about 40 extra minutes of reading each day. 

Cardio and the writer

I’m an admitted cardio addict. I usually spend about an hour on my exercise bike each day, in addition to my thrice weekly weightlifting sessions. 

Why? First of all, because I used to be a fat guy. But that’s another story for another time.

Cardio is important for writers. Yes, that’s right, you heard me: Cardio is important for writers.

Nature’s mood drug

Most writers suffer from anxiety and depression. (I am prone to both.) 

Exercise is nature’s mood drug. Forget the crap that the pharmaceutical companies are peddling. You don’t need prozac, Ritalin, and all that crap from Big Pharma. 

And you certainly don’t need cannabis. Don’t get me started on the current (and utterly idiotic) cannabis craze.

Exercise floods your body with serotonin. It’s free! No prescription required! Completely legal in all fifty states! 

And while exercise is addicting, it’s a good form of addiction.

Reading and brainstorming

Time spent on the exercise bike is also a great time to catch up reading. I read whenever I’m on my bike, or on the Stairmaster at the gym.

But what about actually writing? Or preparing to write?

When the weather in southern Ohio is pleasant (and it often isn’t pleasant), I sometimes go for walks. 

I find walking to be conducive to brainstorming. If an aspect of a story is puzzling me, I can usually work it out during a walk. 

I’m not alone in this regard, by the way—Charles Dickens famously walked as many as twenty miles a day. He plotted his stories in his head during these long peregrinations.

Dickens also suffered from insomnia. It wasn’t uncommon for him to go walking at two o’clock in the morning.

If you’re a writer, then exercise should be a regular part of your routine. Especially cardio. And Charles Dickens, no less, would agree with me.

On coauthoring and author “teams”

Someone asked me about this the other day.

In a word, no. Just…no. Or maybe…hell no.

I realize that in the indie space, that’s the thing right now. The idea is that if writers pool their efforts, they can crank out even more volume…Get more Kindle Unlimited page reads!

Some successful indie writers have even become James Patterson-like book packagers, whereby they are hiring other writers to write in their “universes”.

As we used to say in the 1980s, gag me with a spoon.  

Or: sorry, not for me. If I wanted to work in committees, I would have stayed in the corporate world.

Sometimes collaboration is a necessary evil. Some art forms require groups by their very nature. For example, try to start a rock band by yourself, just you and your drum kit. It can’t be done.

But if a committee isn’t a necessary evil, why would you want to subject your creative process to that? My cousin’s boyfriend is an ex-member of a very successful rock band from the 1990s, and he’s told me about the challenges of dealing with bandmates.

Why would anyone want to bring that into their writing?

Writing stories and novels is a one-person venture. At least it is for me…