A common debate amongst fiction writers is how to do it: do you outline first, or write by the seat of your pants? One of the arguments I’ve heard against outlines is that it stifles the creative process, forcing your story into a pre-set pattern. Hardly! Like every part of the fiction writing process, your outline needs to be flexible.
I’m a hardcore outliner. It’ doesn’t matter if I’m writing a 500 word article or 50,000 word novel. I need to get my thoughts onto paper so I have an idea of where I’m going. I’ve written without outlines and am never happy with the results. I end up rewriting, sometimes rewriting again, because the flow simply doesn’t work. That’s not bad for an article, but I re-wrote a novel three times – three times! – because my characters kept roaming without a map. That was some seriously wasted time because I knew who my characters were, but I didn’t know all of their options. That’s why I needed an outline.
My outline is my map. I know where my characters are starting and I know where I want them to end up, but I’m not always sure how to get them there. That’s why I need my outline. It’s my Google Map to the end of the story. Once I plug in my destination, I find out there are three or four ways to get there. Then I usually run into some construction that slows me down. I’ve even found some scenic routes that I didn’t know existed.
My outline is necessary to keep me focused and moving, but its a road map, not a train track. I’m not on a set path with a travel schedule. My outline allows for stops, detours, and unexpected sight-seeing. I would never start a novel without one, and I would never let it tell me how the story goes, but I will let it give me some ideas.
How do you prefer to start your novel? Do you allow yourself to be flexible?