No-Tears Outlining by K. A. Laity

I write fairly fast; I know people who write even faster. One of the most important things necessary to write faster than you do now is to stop questioning every thing your write.

The other thing that will save you a lot of time and help you get through that first draft a lot faster is to outline. It’s superfluous for a short story—though a few notes might be helpful—useful for a novella and essential for a novel (you need a wiki for a series).

The time you spend working on a good outline will pay you back at least threefold in time saved while writing the novel. In this crazy NaNoWriMo month, where every little bit of time you can squeeze helps to reach the goal, that’s a big pay off. Even if you’re not rushing for the November deadline, time saved on one project means progress on a future project or more time to work on your whole platform.

I know the objections from pantsers; I’m not out to change your basic personality, you can still fly wild and free. But you wouldn’t go up without a safety check on the airplane, would you? You need the basic equipment.

Every semester I have students who come to me with trembling lower lips and big cow eyes, who express amazement that they have received a bad grade on their paper. Their mystification is plain: “All my teachers have said I write really well!” They’re certain that I am blind to their genius. Fortunately, I tell them, I believe in revision (because that’s where the magic happens). Then I explain what’s wrong with their very well-written essay:

The structure is a mess.

Then I tell them how important it is to outline. They get that pinched look on their faces then and I have to explain further. And I know to a lot of intuitive writers the word “outline” sounds as oppressive as braces on your teeth or splints on your leg. But it’s a misconception.

When I say ‘outline’ I don’t mean that rigid thing some of us were taught to use with the Roman numeral one, capital A, Arabic number one, small a and so forth. You don’t have to have painfully neat rows of nested subheadings with matching numerical pairs. You don’t have to do anything that formal at all. I don’t.

But I have written several books, including a couple of on-going series, and every single one (fiction and non-fiction) started with a hand written-outline. Rarely do they ever have the formality of that Roman numeral/capital letter traditional outline. In fact, sometimes they’re a real mess by the time I’m done sketching them out, but useful nonetheless. Why?

You need a map.

It is one of the best time savers around. If you tend to be a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ you may resist the outline as a collar on creativity. It’s not. It’s your map. If you want to write something fairly quickly even if you’re not intending to write a novel in thirty days (I’ve written one in eight) it’s the biggest time saver to know where you are going. I can see the difference in projects where I just begin to ramble on an idea and those where I know where I’m going.

Sheer inventiveness loses steam as the project gets bigger: there are too many threads to keep weaving, too many details to keep track of while writing new ones. It’s easy to lose your way. Many writers experience this as the “saggy middle”—you’ve lost your way and you don’t know where to go and you start to feel a horrible sinking feeling, especially if you have a deadline hanging over your head. If feels like driving in the woods at night on low beam.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ~ E. L. Doctorow

But why drive only at night? An outline gives you a map to follow; it need be only as detailed as is useful. That may take some work, but it’s worthwhile. I discovered this from my own experiences. With my novel Pelzmantel, I had the first line, the last line, and some episodes in between. It took me almost five years to write (admittedly, I was writing my dissertation on medieval saints lives at the same time). My alt history novel Owl Stretching took me sixteen months: my guideline (I can’t really call it an outline) had a more developed set of notes as well as the opening line and several incidents. My sexy thriller Chastity Flame took ten weeks. The sequel, Lust Situation, took less time and the third book even a bit less.

I did get faster at writing too, but the difference was having an outline. For the thriller series, I have outlines that break down the narrative by chapter. I write messy, handwritten notes on lined pads of paper, cross things out, revise, juggle chapter order and then re-write it again. But after I do that I know the arc of the story and where I’m building toward dramatic climaxes, so I get the pacing just right.

You need to know the shape of the story. Most downtime in writing is figuring out what happens next. If you have an idea of where it’s going, that becomes less of a problem (and far less stressful). I got stuck in Pelz when I couldn’t figure out how to get from the main character’s birth to her adolescence, but I knew that’s where I needed to be. The solution ended up being so simple:

Fifteen years passed…

But your outline isn’t written in stone. You need to stay alive to the story; don’t stick slavishly to your outline. Characters reveal new facets, you think of even better ways to make your characters suffer. Re-write the outline. It’s also a work in progress. The map may change if you find a bridge out or realize there’s something you want to check out on the scenic route. But it’s much easier to alter your journey when you know where you are heading. The goal is your beacon in the dark. Keep your map by your side.

Otherwise you may end up going in circles.



K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir and Noir Carnival. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.


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