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Why I don't outline

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

TStarnes

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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 to voice and character and theme and engrossing and nuanced plot (and much more efficiently that I ever will.)

The first time I outlined, I had the "plot plot plot" issue. I finally figured out a process that works for me. I go through each major character (and some important secondary character) and work out their individual character progressions, working out where I want them to start and end and then filling in the in between so it feels natural, then I look at all of the outlines together and plot out scenes for each, weaving them together. Then I shuffle everything around to try and keep the pacing right.

I think finding the characters voice and making sure the theme is there is the same for both pantsing and plotting, it just happens at different time. I do all the same thing that pantsers do, exploring the characters and their journey, but I do it in the outline phase and not the writing (heck, I know someone who finds most of that in the edit and second draft, and their first draft is usually incredibly dry)
 

mccardey

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I think finding the characters voice and making sure the theme is there is the same for both pantsing and plotting, it just happens at different time. I do all the same thing that pantsers do, exploring the characters and their journey, but I do it in the outline phase and not the writing (heck, I know someone who finds most of that in the edit and second draft, and their first draft is usually incredibly dry)
I think you're right. And I'm sure if I followed through I could probably end up with something usable. Maybe. Or not.

Maybe I'll try it again one day. (Or not... ;) )
 

zmethos

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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?
Well, you know, I come from a screenwriting background, so I don't think structure is really my issue. And I worked as a developmental editor for a big publisher before deciding to focus on my own work. I know my work isn't perfect by any means, but if this agent has an issue with my structure or editing, plotting, pacing, etc. I would need more specific direction than "read these books about outlining." And that might also be my ASD talking--I really don't work well with vague instructions. Tell me what's wrong and I'll fix it. (Even if it's just to say, "This part drags on too long and this bit feels muddy." At least point to something concrete!) But I know a lot of agents don't want to feel like they're dictating what should happen in an author's work. Anyway, this agent had originally told me she thought I was very talented, but then, after I struggled to outline (or do whatever she thought outlining would do for me and my work, which wasn't clear), she told me maybe she just wasn't the agent for me. I guess cuz I can't take the kind of direction she gives. :e2shrug:

ETA: It's also very possible I'm able to edit others' works and not my own as well as I'd like. (I do have a critique group and beta readers, though, so that helps.) Maybe the flaws I see clearly when I'm working on others' writing aren't as visible to me when I'm doing mine. But again, that's when specifics would be more helpful.
 

lizmonster

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Anyway, this agent had originally told me she thought I was very talented, but then, after I struggled to outline (or do whatever she thought outlining would do for me and my work, which wasn't clear), she told me maybe she just wasn't the agent for me. I guess cuz I can't take the kind of direction she gives. :e2shrug:

Last time I queried, one (very well-regarded) agent replied requesting a R&R. Nearly everything she pointed out was at right angles to what I was trying to do with the book. I thanked her and declined.

An agents' judgement on your work is ultimately subjective. Ideally they know the sort of thing they can sell, but apart from that - they know what they like, same as the rest of us, and "close but no thanks" just means "I don't like this enough." Says nothing about what the next agent will think.
 

Roxxsmom

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Be aware that some agents can have boilerplate rejections that sound rather individualized, if vague. I got one once suggesting I hire an editor or employ a critiquing group, which devastated me. You see I do have a critiquing group and I have been told by other people (including some authors and a couple of professional editors) that my craft is very good and my work is quite "clean" when it comes to mechanics. It was depressing to me that she found my submission so sloppy and un-proofed, and I wasn't sure what had been wrong with it from her perspective. It really shook me to the core that I might be a writer who was so awful with the basic nuts and bolts I needed to pay an editor to edit my work before I subbed it.

But then I spoke with some other folks who got requests from the same person (it was a twitter pitch contest) and they had gotten the same exact rejection. It was simple "generic" advice that may or may not apply.

A form rejection that said she regretted that it wasn't what she was looking for would have been better, really it would.

Seriously, we unpublished writers tend to be as prone to reading between the lines of a rejection letter as young (or not so young) lovers do when they are dumped by someone they adore.
 
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Nirfalk

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I actually just switched from 'pants'-ing to outlining.

For my two previous novels, I did no or hardly any outlining and with both, I feel that the momentum of 'pantsing' carried my past some things I, in retrospect, should have done differently. For my upcoming project, I'm outlining like crazy!

First I mind-mapped the five parts of the novel, coming up with the basic structure and important thematic ideas. Then I added post-its with scenes I wanted/needed as well as things to keep in mind or that might be interesting. Then I made more cards about characters, environmental details and other background details. I also added some images to spark the visual inspiration.

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Having that wall beside me every day while I work has been amazing for inspiration. My concept for the novel has grown in coherency, personality, and complexity. Now, I'm at the final step of the outline where I'm making a spreadsheet over every scene in order, noting down what happens, where it takes place, who's in it, and what its purpose is. That way I can easily see the plot lines moving, all of the character beats, what information should be revealed when, and so on.

I'm certainly not trying to be in the business of trying to tell anyone how to write or prepare—each method is equally valid so long as it suits you!—but I have to say that I'm very happy with this process so far. I feel like I have a lot of control and I suspect that having the function of every scene in the book worked out in such detail beforehand will free me up to focus at bit more on the moment-to-moment prose.

That all remains to be seen, of course. I haven't written the dang thing yet.
 
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dickson

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I’m a pantser who usually starts out facilis decensus to outline my ideas. To repurpose wisdom from another line of work entirely, my outline never survives its first contact with the enemy.
 

The Otter

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Echoing what everyone else says here, the process is a very individualized thing and I think most writers work from a combination of plotting and pantsing. There's usually some idea of where we want the story to go and what we want to say, but I also think it's rare to find a writer who writes an entire detailed story outline and then never deviates from the plan.

I think an important point is that what sounds compelling in an outline or synopsis doesn't always translate well into scene form. It can give you ideas about what might work, but the only way to know whether a given plot beat, character arc etc. is actually going to work is to write it.
 

SwallowFeather

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I’m a pantser who usually starts out facilis decensus to outline my ideas. To repurpose wisdom from another line of work entirely, my outline never survives its first contact with the enemy.
Yes, this--I outline as I go. The idea that outlining means making a structured plan and sticking to it is entirely foreign to me. (Besides first contact with the enemy--btw is the enemy the blank page, perhaps?--it's ridiculous to suppose that one's first ideas will always be one's best. A few of them, sure. But once you're "on the ground" you'll know which of them to use and which to drop much better.) But the idea of not planning at all is foreign to me too--at least, beyond the end of Act I or so.

Basically my sense of the thing is: it takes so very, very much thinking, re-thinking, subconscious processing and midnight realizing to make a really good climax that I need to be working on my climax the entire time I am writing. As soon as I have a general sense where I'm going, I'll start trying to see ahead, I'll come up with tentative climaxes, always inadequate at first, and then discard or build on them as I start to see clearer. Hoping to have the true right thing by the time I get there. That's just how long it takes.
 

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Plotting is one of my favorite subjects to pick apart and I love reading other people's thoughts on it. It's so weird because each one of us can go into meticulous detail about how we (do or don't) plot, and not only will it be almost impossible for someone else to recreate our method, but even we often can't recreate our own method exactly with the next book we write. 😅
My own tentative recurring process for outlining involves jotting down detailed scenes and bullet point events, and stringing them into a cause and effect order.... It's like the opposite of kill your darlings, where the entire book is basically a series of darlings I came up with in the shower and then tried to justify in print. (Plenty of darlings still fall to the wayside before I'm done editing though...)
 
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Roxxsmom

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Some people who outline find it useful, not for the sake of rigidly sticking with the plan, but because it gives them a sense of how to start and some flexible ideas about where to go with the story. If they get new ideas as they go, that's fine. But it helps them cope with the empty page issue at the beginning.

But not everyone outlines, and that's fine too. For some creating an outline creates more of a "staring at an empty page" issue than simply starting in on a scene they have envisioned. This is definitely true for me.

I find I can start creating some kind of outline once I am a ways into a story, but even that will not be firm. For me the process is more like coming up with a 2 page plot synopsis to give me a sense for where the story could go from here. I've never found the "traditional" outline with numbers and letters and subcategories etc. particularly useful for anything except power point presentations (perhaps).

I had a critting partner once for whom outlining entailed writing a novelette-length, highly telly version of the story, or to put it another way, a novella-length synopsis. Their outline basically read like a story but without all the scene building, details, in depth dialog, subtext, and other stuff one expects. They fill that stuff in later.
 
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dickson

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Yes, this--I outline as I go. The idea that outlining means making a structured plan and sticking to it is entirely foreign to me. (Besides first contact with the enemy--btw is the enemy the blank page, perhaps?--it's ridiculous to suppose that one's first ideas will always be one's best. A few of them, sure. But once you're "on the ground" you'll know which of them to use and which to drop much better.) But the idea of not planning at all is foreign to me too--at least, beyond the end of Act I or so.

Basically my sense of the thing is: it takes so very, very much thinking, re-thinking, subconscious processing and midnight realizing to make a really good climax that I need to be working on my climax the entire time I am writing. As soon as I have a general sense where I'm going, I'll start trying to see ahead, I'll come up with tentative climaxes, always inadequate at first, and then discard or build on them as I start to see clearer. Hoping to have the true right thing by the time I get there. That's just how long it takes.
You correctly identified the worst enemy of all!
 

Nether

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Yes, this--I outline as I go. The idea that outlining means making a structured plan and sticking to it is entirely foreign to me. (Besides first contact with the enemy--btw is the enemy the blank page, perhaps?--it's ridiculous to suppose that one's first ideas will always be one's best. A few of them, sure. But once you're "on the ground" you'll know which of them to use and which to drop much better.)

I feel like this touches on something of a misconception. An outline is rarely one's "first ideas."

When I'm planning with an outline, my original ideas might change ten times before making it into the outline, and then the outline itself changes several times more (not counting changes to the outline made drafting). It's like doing multiple drafts (since you're working through the story at a structural level), but you're still just in planning.

Likewise, when you're "on the ground," you're often just going with what can amount to a different set of "first" ideas which you also may need to change. And when one thing seems to call for another, altering one thing may throw everything else off.

When I'm closer to the pantsing side, my original idea and the start of my draft will be very close and then drift apart by the end (or, more likely, drift a lot in the middle then come close to what I imagined at the end). When I'm doing a lot more outlining, the start of my draft might not even resemble the original idea at all because the idea changed repeatedly while making the outline
 

Fuchsia Groan

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When I get a new book idea, I always draft the first 20 or 30 pages (pantsing) before I start outlining. I need to do that to know if the idea is viable. My outlines are always WIPs that shift radically as I go.

But I do always have outlines now, and even use index cards. I used to wing it and trust my internal sense of structure. Then I sold a book on proposal, and the editor didn’t like how it turned out. I was asked to start over with a three-act structure—which, tbh, didn’t help matters, and the book still needed a whole new concept before they’d accept it. But I emerged a believer in three-act structure for tightly plotted mysteries and thrillers.

I still discover a ton of things in the writing process. Sometimes it takes time to figure out the solution to a problem. Sometimes it takes prodding from my critique group to dig deeper. Either way, the process can’t be rushed, which means I’m constantly retooling my outline.

I still love having one, though. It gives me confidence that I’m headed toward a finished book and not producing wandering 700-page metafictions like I did in my thirties when I wanted to be Thomas Pynchon. Back then, my writing was okay on the sentence level but so unreadable on the story and character level that no one would give me feedback because they didn’t know how to explain (or didn’t want to) that you can write nice prose while understanding absolutely nothing about how to pull a reader through a story and keep them engaged. I had to reach the point where I could see the problems for myself and improve.

This is obviously not how pantsing goes for writers who are good at it; I wasn’t good at it. So I do it only in spurts, when I’m experimenting with something (book idea, scene idea, new plot twist idea). And that works fine.

Perhaps those index cards are a bit of a security blanket. :) They’re no guarantee that the book will work, but they make me feel better.
 

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