The Journal: When You Outline a Novel

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Topic: When You Outline a Novel
* Of Interest

Quote of the Day

One more note for Memorial Day:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

from “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, a poet and British soldier who was killed in World War I.

Topic: When You Outline a Novel

Someone asked why I have a problem with others outlining novels. The short answer is, I don’t. What do I care?

Now, I won’t read a novel that I know (or can tell) has been outlined, but that’s my preference as a reader. I don’t want to use my time reading a story in which I’ll be able to tell in advance the outcome of every conversation, every event, and every situation.

When a writer preplans and plots and “figures out” everything, so can the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

So I won’t read an outlined novel, and I advise writers against outlining them, but each writer has to make up his or her own mind about whether to outline (in whatever form) or whether to trust the characters. And no, you can’t both preplan and trust your characters.

Why aren’t some writers able to trust their characters?

Well, for one thing, at no time during their formal education are writers taught to trust their characters and simply record the stories that the characters themselves (not the writers) are living.

I asked a writing instructor about that one time, because to me, this is an unbelievable disconnect. “After all,” I said, “would you try to tell your neighbors how to live their lives in every moment?”

“No, of course not,” the instructor replied. Then, his hands spread as if to embrace the class, he said, “You can trust the neighbors, can’t you? But why would any writer trust their characters?” He beamed his best evangelical smile. “Characters aren’t even real people, are they?” He laughed lightly. “They’re only made up, aren’t they?”

And as the other writer-students nodded at the instructor’s sage wisdom and scribbled a quick note in their notebook — I suspect it read, Characters are not real — I shook my head, got to my feet, and left. I didn’t ask for my money back. Forty bucks was little enough to pay to have my eyes opened to What It Is, the way things stand in the world of fiction writing.

All of that “characters aren’t real” nonsense ignores the fact that when the characters first appeared in the writer’s mind they were fully formed and doing and/or saying things and often even reacting to or instigating situations.

Just as if the writer had peered through an interdimensional doorway or pulled back a curtain to witness part of a story that is ongoing even when s/he isn’t watching.

Unfortunately, most writers don’t think about things like that. They’re too busy “creating” characters, stories, etc. Many never learn all they have to do is sit back, let it flow, and be entertained.

All of that being said, outlining a novel has two distinctly negative effects:

1. The writer is bored with the story.

After all, s/he’s already written it once, albeit in much-condensed form. So again, there are no surprises left. The writer knows how the story begins, any major twists and turns, and how it ends, so what’s the point of writing it again?

At that point, you can’t write the story to entertain yourself. That chance is gone. You’re only writing it now to publish it, so writing it becomes important, something to worry about and fret over. It becomes work.

At this disappointing point, many would-be writers will give up altogether on writing fiction. Not openly, of course, or intentionally. It’s just that suddenly pretty much anything else takes precedence, and there are only so many hours in the day, and you know how that goes.

Many more will give up on writing only that particular story. It seems too boring now, though maybe they aren’t quite sure why. So they’ll move on to outline the next story. Do we have to wonder how that will go?

But a few hearty souls will go ahead and write the story after they’ve finished the outline. Of course, they still know the beginning, every major twist and turn, and the ending, so they’re still bored to the bone.

But nfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. Even if the writer chooses to go ahead and write it,

2. The story is no longer authentic.

It’s no longer the story the characters would have lived had the writer trusted them and left them to their own devices. The characters are no longer even characters. They’re only actors, playing their roles and saying their lines at the writer’s direction.

The writer replaced that authentic story with a safe, sanitized version of itself when s/he first decided to “craft” an outline. So it isn’t the authentic story s/he always dreamed of someday writing.

And deep inside, the writer knows that. S/he feels it in little tweaks of the gut (the creative subconscious trying to pull the writer back) as s/he forces the story to conform to the outline or revises or rewrites. And with each tweak s/he knows s/he’s getting further from the original story, but s/he can’t help herself. The myths and the fear run too deep.

The good news? If you can let go of the unreasoning fear and the silly myths, trust your characters and Just Write, those nasty gut tweaks all but vanish.

Now to bring everything full circle: These writers, having

  • outlined,
  • written,
  • revised X number of times,
  • received critiques,
  • applied X number of fixes,
  • rewritten X number of times to appease whomever, and
  • tried in vain to teach idiots like like me the terrible error of our ways —

will refer to the process of writing fiction as “sheer drudgery” when they finally attend their launch party.

Well, duh. No wonder.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The Path Into Licensing” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1060 words

Writing of Blackwell Ops 8 (tentative title, novel)

Day 1…… 2371 words. Total words to date…… 2371
Day 2…… 1305 words. Total words to date…… 3676
Day 3…… 1107 words. Total words to date…… 4783

Total fiction words for May……… 4783
Total fiction words for the year………… 10576
Total nonfiction words for May… 20960
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 80610
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 91186

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 66
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

3 thoughts on “The Journal: When You Outline a Novel”

  1. This reminded me of a blog post I read on the screenwriter John August’s blog. In short he warned his readers that writing isn’t fun. Its hard, hard work.
    Now John August is quite successful in the screenwriting game and he may just be pulling newer writer’s legs, but if that’s how he feels about it honestly….why do that to yourself?

    As for outlining, in screenwriting if you are hired for an assignment (i.e hired to write someone else’s idea) an outline is almost always necessary before you start. Not only that, but many times the producers will want you to revise that outline until they approve it. Only then can you start writing.
    For that reason (and a few others) I don’t aim to get assignments like many other writers. Its harder to sell original material but I’d rather have fun writing than writing on assignment hating every minute.

    • Yup, probably a whole different game in screenwriting, and I know nothing about it.

      Dean used to tell the story that back in the day, NY publishers would occasionally hire Dean to write a novel. They would almost always require an outline, so he’d slap one together and send it to them. But he never looked at it again. Once they approved the outline and the project, he just tossed the outline and wrote the story into the dark. None of the publishers ever said anything and the novels were never rejected.

      • That could work in screenwriting as well, though I wouldn’t want to risk it personally (knowing my luck I’d try it, get fired and blacklisted haha).

        I love the craft of screenwriting. The format, the visual nature of the medium, but the business side of can grind you down if you let it.

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