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Why I don't outline

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Paul Lamb

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I've long thought that the reason so many writers love the "rules" (whether that's grammar or genre conventions or the proper use of dialogue tags or whatever) is because there is so much self doubt in what we do. Is this good enuf? Am I good enuf? Will anyone want what I write? Will anyone read what I write? Should I be writing something else? And on. So when someone comes along and says that this or that rule about writing is absolute, a good many of us are quickly seduced by the imagined certainty and cleave to that rule.

Of course one writer's rule is another writer's suggestion and another writer's antagonist. I don't give much allegiance to the rules (even spelling -- the word "enuf" occurs throughout my (unpublished) novel Obelus -- and I suspect my use of em dashes is often incorrect). Sentence fragments seem to be integral to my natural style. But then I know of at least one 100+ word sentence I've written as well.

One of the fundamental bits of guidance writers are given when starting out is to outline the intended work in advance. Organize your thoughts. Put them in order. Re-order them. Organize sub-thoughts under major points. Work from a premise and work toward a conclusion.

Yeah, I don't do that.

When I start on a story, I do generally have an idea of where I'm going and what I want to achieve. But in nearly all cases, my result is far from the original idea. Latest Big Project is a good example. I had an idea for writing a semi-serious work of seeming non-fiction that was really going to be a very unconventional work of fiction. And while it's still that, the semi-serious portion is barely holding on. The seeming non-fiction part has grown more absurd as I've been writing it. Crazy thoughts come into my head throughout the day about how I could develop this idea or introduce that idea. I had introduced a sub-plot that I thought would give my character some depth, and that sub-plot has taken over and become the main (hidden) point of the story.

Similarly with Obelus, a certain character was intended all along to be an ambitious free-lance journalist, but when it came to showing her as such, I suddenly shifted her into something altogether different. I don't know where this revelation came from. I hadn't planned for it, but it took the novel in a different, and better, direction. It's a vastly different novel in tone and plot (the plot is the MacGuffin).

My point is that if I had outlined what I wanted to write in advance, I don't know that these "revelations" would have come to me. If I had been neat and orderly in advance, I think I might have missed out on the creative chaos and discovery that seems to work so well for me. I'd have been devoted (blinded?) to developing the story as it was originally conceived rather than flowing with it as it evolved.

So I don't outline. Well, not in advance. I am about to begin outlining Latest Big Project, which I have mostly finished, so I can see where to wedge in hints and references to the sub-plot that's become the main plot. It needs to build to that (where all is revealed in the final chapter). So having an outline of how things are now will be a kind of after-the-fact guidebook for where to take it further.

What about you? Do you outline in advance?

UPDATE 11OCT21 - I guess I want to point out that I am susceptible to the rigidity of thinking that would prevent me from seeing opportunities and having creative discoveries if I outlined. Your results may vary.
 
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neandermagnon

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I don't. For fairly similar reasons - if I were to write an outline I would rapidly deviate from it. I do mental planning in my head but more on a scene by scene basis, with a vague idea about where it's going (I start with a character with a problem, it needs to be resolved one way or another by the end).

However, while there are books on how to write that claim that it's impossible to write anything without a plan/outline, there are plenty of writers that don't and it's a fairly established thing. It's even got a name "pantsing" (from "writing by the seat of your pants" apparently).
 

Lea123

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I totally get it.

If I outline, which is what I've tried to do in the past because that's what 'real' writers do according to the internet, then I just get deflated and frustrated when my characters don't play ball. They never play ball.

I let them lead me and I know that doesn't work for everyone and that some people need the structure to pin the meat onto the bones but I can't do that. I really have tried.

I'm also pretty good at keeping things in my head. I don't need a paper trail, files or folders dedicated to things. I just remember them. It's a pity I can't apply the same trick to actual real life.

Sometimes, I've put characters in situations that have felt like the natural progression for the story. It's like they'll attempt to play the role but ultimately, they'll rebel and the whole scene(s) tumble around me. I could get cross and try to force them but, as my father likes to say, it's like trying to cram a round peg into a square hole.

Now I stand back, observe and role play, then attempt to put their lives onto paper.

Character M in my book went from being some awful underground maniac to the grandmother of character A. M was acting in desperation for fear of losing her estranged grandchild (who she hadn't seen since she was a child). If I had outlined the original intended plot, it would never have panned out that way. Now, all character M's actions make sense and the motives that drive her are more real too. Its then opened up and tied into the story in so many other ways that I couldn't have possibly planned or outlined.

I can't describe how it works, but it does!
 
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I started a second project with a phase outline system. Went off the outline writing almost immediately.
 

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Real writers write. Some pants; some outline. Some do both, or neither. What works for a given writer and a given project, is what's right for that writer and project.

One exception to outlines are the submission guidelines/proposal guidelines for many non-fiction publishers request an outline as part of the proposal.

Even then, what constitutes an outline or outlining is open to interpretation and preference. At its heart, an outline is an organized list with some fancy formatting.

Oddly many of the people who assert that X is The One True Way have never actually sold anything. Many of the self-published How To Write X books are by writers who have written only that book. Many of the books that offer advice about how to write are intended for undergraduate students in college comp classes (Strunk and White is the poster child for this category).

Many of the aphorisms people throw around about writing are statements that have been ripped from their original context and no longer function they way they were meant to. Write what you know, murder your darlings, apply the seat of the pants, etc.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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I think of my outline as more of wayposts than an explicit recipe that must be followed. On my main WIP, one of the characters has a totally different second half than what I originally had planned . There's plenty of scenes that just sorta...happened in the moment. But I know I need to have SOME idea of WHERE I'm going or I'll get lost and never move forward. But if the plan is too stringent then it won't go anywhere, either, I'll feel stifiled.

The exception is for my interactive novel game thing, which has outlining out the wazoo. But also I am dealing with multiple timelines/realities and all of this has to be organized for both the programmers' and readers' sanity. There would be no way this could be written without an outline.
 
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Nether

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and I suspect my use of em dashes is often incorrect).

I over-use the hell of em-dashes and ellipses. I suspect 90% of the time a simple comma, semi-colon, or even a period would have done, but who can resist an em-dash? I'm only human!

Sentence fragments seem to be integral to my natural style. But then I know of at least one 100+ word sentence I've written as well.

Sentence fragments are a natural tool for external and internal dialogue. There are times when they don't make sense, but it can be a style thing.

One of the fundamental bits of guidance writers are given when starting out is to outline the intended work in advance. Organize your thoughts. Put them in order. Re-order them. Organize sub-thoughts under major points. Work from a premise and work toward a conclusion.

I'm not sure how common that actually is particularly where fiction is concerned since there's a pantser/discovery writer camp that might be larger than the outliner/planner/architect camp. And a lot of huge names are pantsers.

There's no "one way" to write, which is what can make learning the craft frustrating at times because it's inherently open-ended.

When I start on a story, I do generally have an idea of where I'm going and what I want to achieve.

I sometimes don't have that. However, I'll build and refine a plan as I go along. I'd rather have an outline at the start, but sometimes it takes a few chapters before I get an idea of the total picture.

But in nearly all cases, my result is far from the original idea.

I mean, you can revise an outline. Some outliners will even add and remove characters as they go along, retconning the earlier chapters to reflect the changes.

Latest Big Project is a good example. I had an idea for writing a semi-serious work of seeming non-fiction that was really going to be a very unconventional work of fiction. And while it's still that, the semi-serious portion is barely holding on. The seeming non-fiction part has grown more absurd as I've been writing it. Crazy thoughts come into my head throughout the day about how I could develop this idea or introduce that idea. I had introduced a sub-plot that I thought would give my character some depth, and that sub-plot has taken over and become the main (hidden) point of the story.

I kind of like outlining for that, because I can do all of those changes before I actually start to write. And in some cases I'll start by placing something in one genre, but wind up going with another genre and change things accordingly.

As a general rule (and I realize that "rule" is verboden in this discussion, but I can't think of a better word for it), I imagine the more pre-planning you do, the less revision you might need because a lot of things are addressed prior to writing. And a lot can be done to refine a story before you start writing the story.

Similarly with Obelus, a certain character was intended all along to be an ambitious free-lance journalist, but when it came to showing her as such, I suddenly shifted her into something altogether different. I don't know where this revelation came from. I hadn't planned for it, but it took the novel in a different, and better, direction. It's a vastly different novel in tone and plot (the plot is the MacGuffin).

I'll say that between planning and drafting, character personalities tend to change pretty quickly for me since I like free-writing characters because I'm a dialogue junkie.

My point is that if I had outlined what I wanted to write in advance, I don't know that these "revelations" would have come to me. If I had been neat and orderly in advance, I think I might have missed out on the creative chaos and discovery that seems to work so well for me. I'd have been devoted (blinded?) to developing the story as it was originally conceived rather than flowing with it as it evolved.

I feel like that's a false dichotomy. And just because you plan something doesn't mean you can't change the plan. Very few things in writing are all-or-nothing.

And again, a lot of that stuff might come out in outlining. My characters tend to change multiple times in just the outlining phase as I figure out what will or won't work in context, and then they change more as the story goes along. I might have villains who wind up not being villains, for example.

What about you? Do you outline in advance?

I write better with a detailed outline. If I know what I need to do, I can write far faster. Granted, this doesn't *have* to be a written outline, but if I know exactly what I'm doing for the next chapter or two, I can sometimes write 2,500-3,000 words in an hour (but that requires a *very* good idea of what happens and what's said, and it's been a while since I've broken 2k words/hour).

Conversely, if I have a rough idea of what I need to do and the overall direction, I'm still staying over 1,500+ words per hour.

Where I get screwed is when I'm planning as I go along or I don't have enough of a concrete vision, at which point I wind up writing stop & go, I can't focus at all, and my hourly drops to.... I think the worst lately was about a 500, but usually it's better than that.

Anyway, it's that difference in outcomes that I prefer outlining, but because I believe in writing every day, I don't always have a chance to outline first. (And I also do a lot more self-editing as I write when I'm not outlining, which might slow me down as well.)

Also, I will mention that sometimes when I put together an outline, I won't check the outline unless I get stuck. The process of outlining is partly a way of refining my story and helping me see the sequence of events in my head, so a lot of it can be internalized. However, this can be a problem with old outlines, such as when I do the outline 2-3 months before starting a project because I decide to do other novels first.
 

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I don't outline. I respect those who do. It isn't one of my talents. I've written over 60 novels & short stories by imagining an open scene. The story (and the characters) fill in the spaces until we get to the end. Many times, I don't know the outcome until I write it.
 
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stephenf

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Stage one in the writers development is , working out a method of working . Personally , I just write a mix of memories, ideas , things seen, and things I have read . Eventually it forms into a very rough first draft, it is also a very rough outline. It is like a sketch, lines are redefined or rubbed out . Sometimes it turns in to something or it is filed, to be reread another day.
 
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lizmonster

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This reminds me of the "how do you get your ideas" thread. It's a fascinating window into how differently we all process story.

I know how to outline. I did it for years writing papers for school, and occasional tech writing during my software career. It's an incredibly useful tool.

My brain approaches story ideas differently. I think of my first draft as my outline: that's where I've thought through events and structure and character, and jotted it all down. It's just instead of four neat, organized pages, I have 150,000 words of chaotic - but mostly feature-complete - prose.

Like others, if I try to outline first, I deviate too quickly. I have found, though, after completing a bunch of novels, it's useful for me to plan 2-3 chapters ahead.

Where outlining becomes a powerful tool for me is after the first draft. Outlining what I have helps reveal plot and pacing issues, and points to specific areas of the text that need fixing.

It's a tool, like any other. Not everyone is going to use it, and those of us who use it won't use it the same way.

Sometimes I think those of us who wing our first drafts need to think of ourselves as innovative and unfettered, because if we don't we'd have to acknowledge we've lept off a cliff with the rocks rushing at us, with no actual knowledge of how we're going to land without everything shattering. :)
 

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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Back in the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I heard a talk by a VERY famous writer who said the only way to write was to just sit down and do it and write whatever comes into your head. And because this was a VERY famous author, I believed the guy and when I started to write my first (attempt at a) novel, I wrote maybe two pages of what might have been a nice prose poem if I'd shortened it. Long (as in decades) story short, I wasn't able to write a novel until I read a book by another almost as famous author that said she didn't know how anyone could write without outlining. I tried it, and no, the novel hasn't sold, but it's written.

Did I deviate from the outline? Well, of course! After years of work, I even changed the MC. But some of us need a map to have some idea of where we're going.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal, who breaks the "rules" about not using CAPITALS and not using exclamation points! all the time
 

zmethos

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I had an agent say she really liked my manuscripts (she read two or three of them) but that she thought I should read a couple books on outlining. I tried. I read the books and I tried so hard, but I discovered I felt too trapped as a writer when I tried to outline and then write according to the outline. Usually, when writing, I have an idea of where I'm starting and where I'm ending and a few points of interest along the way. But in part, for me, it's like an excavation of the story (which gets cleaned up a lot in new drafts and edits). And I do pause now and then at crossroads and make, not outlines, but more like flowcharts for ways things might progress in the story. Then I choose my own adventure, so to speak, and write it. So I don't know. I can't write the way this agent told me I'm "supposed to," and I feel wretched about it, but I can only do things the way that works for me.
 
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lizmonster

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I had an agent say she really liked my manuscripts (she read two or three of them) but that she thought I should read a couple books on outlining. I tried. I read the books and I tried so hard, but I discovered I felt too trapped as a writer when I tried to outline and then write according to the outline. Usually, when writing, I have an idea of where I'm starting and where I'm ending and a few points of interest along the way. But in part, for me, it's like an excavation of the story (which gets cleaned up a lot in new drafts and edits). And I do pause now and then at crossroads and make, not outlines, but more like flowcharts for ways things might progress in the story. Then I choose my own adventure, so to speak, and write it. So I don't know. I can't write the way this agent told me I'm "supposed to," and I feel wretched about it, but I can only do things the way that works for me.

Easier to say than to do, I know, but:

Don't feel bad that the advice you got from a total stranger about your creative process doesn't apply to you.
 
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TheKingsWit

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My point is that if I had outlined what I wanted to write in advance, I don't know that these "revelations" would have come to me. If I had been neat and orderly in advance, I think I might have missed out on the creative chaos and discovery that seems to work so well for me.
I am the exact opposite, if I write without an outline, my writing tends to be much blander, typically with a more straightforward basic plot and a bunch of meandering fluff. Outlining allows me to try a whole bunch of wildly different paths without sinking too much time into any specific one. Of course, I'm an iterative outliner, I've never been afraid of making big deviations from either previous iterations of the outline to newer ones, or when going from outlining to writing, so it never feels restrictive. If I want to make a big deviation while drafting? Then I do that and write a new outline to match the changes (I write so much faster when I have an outline, which is why I continue to work on it even after I start drafting.)

Just goes to show that everyone is different. I think everyone should try both 'pantsing' and outlining at least once, and get a feel of what works best for them.
 

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I had an agent say she really liked my manuscripts (she read two or three of them) but that she thought I should read a couple books on outlining.
I wonder if this agent was making commentary on the structure of your stories; maybe she wanted it to be more defined and streamlined. You can't tell the difference between published books that are discovery written VS outlined. (Stephen King is a discovery writer, Brandon Sanderson is an outliner) but among unpublished/less experienced authors, discovery-written books often need more extreme editing to tighten up the structure, and that is something an agent could pick up on. If so, the solution may lie not in outlining, but in reading up on story structure and editing. Since this agent read several of your novels, would you be able to reach out to her and ask why she suggested outlining?
 
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Roxxsmom

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I'm horrific at outlining. I couldn't even do it for classes in high school and college, where teachers often assigned an outline to be turned in prior to the eventual paper. I learned to write the paper first, in advance, then to create the outline from the paper (to get the points for that part of the assignment). I understand why teachers required this--encouraging students to start their research early and not procrastinate.

I suppose it had that effect for me too, though not in the way intended.

I don't know why outlines don't work for me. I get stuck thinking about what I am going to say next, where something is going to go, until I start writing it, then ideas will often start to cascade.

That seems to be how my brain works, and I'm old enough I doubt my neural wiring is going to change dramatically over the years left to me. Is it a flaw or weakness? In some ways, yes it is, though there have been some benefits too. The main drawback of pantsing is needing to do more revisions and sometimes even having to go back and change things to align with where the story is going "now." And one needs to ruthlessly trim stuff that drags on too long or doesn't go anywhere useful to the story or thesis.

I am in awe of people who are so mentally organized they can assemble all the converging threads of a project before they begin! I seem to need to "discover" them as I go along.

One "compromise" approach that works for some is to create a gloriously messy, disorganized first draft and then outline to tighten things up for the revisions.
 

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I had an agent say she really liked my manuscripts (she read two or three of them) but that she thought I should read a couple books on outlining. ...
My opinion: This advice is not specific enough to be useful. I agree with TheKingsWit above that there was likely something else the agent meant and maybe couldn't articulate. Or perhaps she did and you heard the message that an outline would help.

My book has been pantsed and the story took different directions as it firmed up. I did indeed kill lots of darlings. Critique feedback and my own gazillion edits and rewrites helped the story evolve rather than a plan. One concern I have currently though I consider the book finished is 'story arcs'. I may find out if any agents are kind enough to give me feedback comments, and I'm still waiting on my last beta reader.

I think if I was asked to describe the story arcs they would be there. But I haven't really looked yet.

Anyway, I could not write an outline first. That would require I be more organized than my genetics allow. But when I started I did throw a plan out there. I rapidly wrote ~134,000 word story, some of which consisted of cut and paste ideas of what I wanted, and some of which were filled in summaries of the paragraph or chapter.

Much of what I wrote were chapters with a lot of dialogue and internal monologue of the main character. There were also a number of whole chapters I ended up not using. They were fun adventures my character had as a child and young teen, and less fun bullying she endured for being different. It helped me develop the character and backstory in my head, but in the end I found they were not needed for the reader to understand the character.
 
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lizmonster

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among unpublished/less experienced authors, discovery-written books often need more extreme editing to tighten up the structure

Without evidence (and I'm not sure how you'd gather it), I disbelieve this.

Outlining vs. winging it - and everything in between - is, IMO, about the specific writer's creative process. Neither method is inherently superior.
 

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I’ve written stories with an outline that bears some, little, to no resemblance to the final first draft (as others have mentioned) but it is what it is: a diving board.

I’ve pantsed entire manuscripts on a singular idea.

I’ve also tried a happy medium (it’s more of a loose association storyboard): I create Word documents of chapters and within each empty-chapter document I’ll write a basic idea of what the chapter will consist of (characters and ‘adventure/s’), all the way to Chapter Last. Then I’ll return to primordial chapter one and here is where I’ll begin (usually pantsing, but at least there’s an end in sight).

What I’ve discovered is that all ways of approach work. It just depends on the story.
 

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Without evidence (and I'm not sure how you'd gather it), I disbelieve this.

Outlining vs. winging it - and everything in between - is, IMO, about the specific writer's creative process. Neither method is inherently superior.
I don't believe one method is inherently superior, nor did I claim that one was. This has come from discussions with editors and agents who work with a lot of newer writers. More experienced writers have internalized a sense of structure, and can often produce a reasonably well-structured first draft regardless of whether or not they outline. Less experienced writers will need to actively work to create that structure. They can do this before they write, as an outline, after they write, during structural edits, or any hybrid in-between.

Before, after, during, all work perfectly well and can get you to the same end product. However, some people find it difficult to make big changes to an already written novel or don't know how to do structural edits. If you're an outliner, this might result in a novel structure that has serious flaws. If you're a discovery writer, this might result in you having a loose or ill-defined structure. Both are issues with the same solution, but they show up differently on the page. Since agents and editors are often sent manuscripts that still need significant edits, these differences pop us as trends.
 
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lizmonster

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I don't believe one method is inherently superior, nor did I claim that one was. This has come from discussions with editors and agents who work with a lot of newer writers. More experienced writers have internalized a sense of structure, and can often produce a reasonably well-structured first draft regardless of whether or not they outline. Less experienced writers will need to actively work to create that structure. They can do this before they write, as an outline, after they write, during structural edits, or any hybrid in-between.

Before, after, during, all work perfectly well and can get you to the same end product. However, some people find it difficult to make big changes to an already written novel or don't know how to do structural edits. If you're an outliner, this might result in a novel structure that has serious flaws. If you're a discovery writer, this might result in you having a loose or ill-defined structure. Both are issues with the same solution, but they show up differently on the page. Since agents and editors are often sent manuscripts that still need significant edits, these differences pop us as trends.

I'll tell you what I'm tripping on: the idea that agents and editors would spend enough time with writers that need "significant edits" to get a large enough sample size to know whether they're dealing with mostly pantsers or mostly outliners. IME if they've got a workable book, they don't care how it came to be, and if they don't, they are not interested in anything about the MS at all.

This is all IME; maybe it's genre dependent.

Also, IME if you're not by nature an outliner, outlining ain't happening, so worrying about it is pointless.
 

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Stage one in the writers development is , working out a method of working .
This. Fwiw, I tend to stick a couple of people in a library (this is very very very very early in the process - when all I have is voices and suspicion of theme) and let them whisper at each other, because whispering means their communication needs to be much stronger. I would use a church, if churches weren't quite so - fraught.

From then on, with some vague idea of story from what they've come up with, I pants some ideas. Once that scene in the library has gone, things move on much more excitingly and hopefully the story will start to happen. I've also found I can waste a lot of time by opening the library up before I know who the characters are. Some of the most boring people turn up and just sit themselves down ...
 
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TStarnes

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I think I might be exactly the opposite of everyone here. I outline. Heavily. My average outline is about 40k words. Now, I do update the outline as I write and things change, but I usually have the pacing of the main story, character arcs, and sub-plots worked out down to the scene level before I start writing a word.

The only time I didn't outline was my first book, which I shelved, because it got away from me in the writing and was all over the place.
 
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Holly Green

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It's even got a name "pantsing" (from "writing by the seat of your pants" apparently).
I prefer to call myself a pantalooner. An outline obsessed friend once described my haphazard writing approach as "organic," which was his way of saying, "nuts." Pantalooning therefore seems like a suitable style description, in my world, at least.

Plus pantaloons rock. Are they back in fashion yet? If not, they should be...
 

mccardey

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The only time I didn't outline was my first book, which I shelved, because it got away from me in the writing and was all over the place.
I do envy you :) The only time I did that, I shelved the book because for the life of me I couldn't hear any voices, or themes or ideas. Just plot plot plot. And yet some of my very. very favourite writers work the same way as you do - and manage voice and character and theme, and engrossing and nuanced plot - and much more efficiently that I ever will.
 
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Elizabeth George's book Write Away