Seek out any forum for writers and inevitably, eventually, someone will show up with a question to which there is no good answer: Should I write an outline for my novel before I start? Now, writers are a mostly civil bunch, and in this case they are no different. But you will notice that everyone who answers this question seems to say, “I can imagine not outlining” or “I can’t imagine outlining.”
Switching positions on this deeply ingrained identification can be tricky. Like rewiring your toaster to be a space heater, it feels like there’s a chance everything will go horribly awry and you’ll never be able to do either option again.
But what if you must? As a writer of shared world fiction, I didn’t have a choice when I started my first book, The God Catcher (Feb ’10). Because I work closely with my editor to make sure the story fits in with the rest of the Forgotten Realms line and the rules therein, she wants to know what I’m planning to do, before I go ahead and write 90,000 words based on a mistaken assumption about how dragons piss each other off.
After doing this twice now and talking with some other authors about their experiences, I discovered there really is a clear pattern to doing this. So for those non-outliners who wonder what it would be like to change your methods (or for those of you who just want to laugh) here is my “Outline for Outlining (For Non-Outlining Outliners)”
STAGE ONE: Beginning
1. Have an idea. And if you’re doing shared world, you should have a contract, too. (We won’t discuss fanfiction as it makes legal departments and authors everywhere itchy). You will feel good at this stage. The world is your oyster, your pen may as well write literal gold, and also you are very good looking.
2. Start at the beginning. You will probably write a lot more about your characters than strictly necessary, but it’s good to get it down.
3. Imagine how great this book will be. Pause, perhaps, to write a scene or two. These will be the crux of your character, you are sure. Continue working on your outline.
STAGE TWO: In the belly of the beast.
4. Stop working on your outline.
5. Become overwhelmed with dread. What the hell comes after that? You have no idea. You’re a hack. You have no clue what you’re doing. Also you are out of gin. This will happen around Chapter Five.
6. Put it down. Go to sleep. Give yourself a pep talk and/or a glass of wine. Write “gin” on your shopping list. Also “toothpaste” because you are probably out of that too. Sit down and begin again.
7. Start to like it. You are close to the halfway point by now. Your plots are weaving in and out like sports cars in an over-produced commercial. Your characters are genuine and sweetly flawed. You may decide to fiddle with those scenes again.
8. Slow down. Ponder. Stop altogether.
9. You’ve forgotten something. Try to justify the missing element. But it’s just too big. This will happen between half and two-thirds of the way through your outline.
STAGE THREE: Reworking.
10. Realize you can’t finish this. You have managed to build your story around a plot hole a blind man should have seen. Any more typing and it will collapse into itself. Also you are still out of gin. (Hemingway never ran out of gin. Probably not toothpaste either.)
11. Rethink panicked thoughts about Hemingway—it seems in poor taste.
12. Google Hemingway to see if he actually was known for drinking gin in the first place. Not so much: mojitos.
13. Buy gin anyway.
14. Complain. More than you should. This is optional, but it gets you to the next step sooner. You may be tempted to delete things: this is a bad idea.
15. Sometime, usually in the midst of telling someone how wretchedly this is going, realize that you’ve forgotten a detail. A beautiful, generous, savior of a detail that will hold all of your characters and subplots together like Krazy Glue. Krazy Glue spangled with symbols! A heavenly choir sings somewhere. The Universe has been waiting for this book.
16. This will also usually happen when you are somewhere inconvenient, such as a meeting or a grocery store or your wedding. This will turn out to be a good thing, as it gives you extra time to think through the changes that need to be made and the myriad ways this new element will tie your story together.
STAGE FOUR: Finishing
17. Complete the outline, including the revision necessitated by above detail. Except for one part.
18. You will feel like adding an ending is a bad idea. After all, you don’t know the characters the way you need to. You might like to sketch out things like where character arcs end up (though not how they get there) or what the status of the setting is (same).
19. If you have an editor reading your outline, she will sigh, roll her eyes, and in the gentlest way possible, tell you to stop being a pain in the ass and give her an idea of how you’re going to end it. You have not quite realized at this point (and in subsequent outlines, you will not have completely learned) that your outline is not, in fact, the literary equivalent of a highway. You will change things. That will be okay.
20. Editor or not, you should guess at the ending. Knowing where you’re going is a good way to get there—or of getting someplace near there. You may tell yourself that is a place holder ending, if it makes you feel better. Most of the time you will end it exactly there. And you will love it.
– originally published 1/19/2010
ERIN M. EVANS got a degree in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis–and promptly stuck it in a box. Nowadays she uses that knowledge of bones, mythology, and social constructions to flesh out fantasy worlds. She is the author of The God Catcher, and she lives in Washington State.