Outline versus Outline

My Literary Lounge 
One of the questions I got tagged in some months ago, was by Katie of Whisperings of the Pen, and set me on edge for how very timely it was. I can't say my response was brilliant... actually it is is all rather bewildering, but I thought you might be curious to know my response: do I outline before starting a novel? If so, how extensive an outline do I create? First of all, Katie, how on earth did you know that I've been wrangling my head over this question lately? I have yet to discover.

Generally, I am a very structured and un-disciplined writer at the same time (if you're thinking this is contradictory, well it is); but I am one who likes using 'the snow-flake' method, a little of free writing and a little of structured outlining, knowing ahead of time where I am going and what I'm doing (that's very important for me!), but at the same time with relative freedom to change and expand. With The Crown of Life I used to do a relatively extensive 'outline', but it was not a traditional one with points and subpoints etc (that I feel is too restricting). Basically what I do in the process of 'outlining' is to take time to think and talk over plot ideas and an outline of what happens in the story as ideas come (usually with the help of one of my sisters, a friend, etc) and then jot them down in my 'Ideas Notebook' so as to not forget them. When I have gathered a rough idea of how things are going in the next few chapters, I write a loose 'synopsis' of a couple of pages in length recording events/characters/themes and what happens next: sometimes I can go into great details with what happens in each scene, while at other times it is a little less so as I work more on themes or character development. With that 'synopsis' in hand I feel ready to write in my novel the next big scene. However, I give room for changes and new ideas and usually after any major phone-calls/facebook chats with one of my beta-writing friends or a discussion with one of my sisters I have new plot/character plans that contradict what's written in the synopsis which I had been planning to try fitting into the story. It can be a huge challenge to work out the jigsaw puzzle of scenes, but I try not to be too legalistic about the 'synopsis', because it is only a rough guide, a general map of the direction of the story. The harder part is when I've written a scene based off the synopsis and I get a new idea that demands I rework a passage for that earlier scene to fit the new idea, without knowing whether the new idea will turn out better than the first one! That is usually my biggest challenge, but often one I really have fun with (at least it was so with The Crown of Life). Since my ideas are continually revolving and evolving I have of late almost entirely dropped out on writing the 'synopsis' and instead I keep it stored in the deep caveats of my brain--not that it is a safer way using memory instead of a USB-flash, it just tends to take less time, and something of that seed of inspiration remains in my heart that can get lost in the translation in an outline. When all this is done, I then write a list of chapter titles in proper time-order which is the relative of a proper outline without being too restricting. So far, this method has worked splendidly with me and I've had no trouble on account of it. A Love that Never Fails has been giving me a lot more of trouble with plotting and outlining though, due to the fact that I currently have very little plot ideas to go on... the story seems devoid of a proper outline or plot at this early stage and I cannot recall what I did when I was in the early stage of 'The Crown of Life'. Did I use my outlines, did I know where I was going? I am still in search for answers, and for now, I am writing 'A Love that Never Fails' in a more haphazard 'just write' method which I will confess has been so far somewhat scary! But there is a sense of adventure too, in the 'not-knowing'. It is a fun ride!

So - how do you outline your novels as you write? Do you have one? Please, do tell!


  1. A very good question, and one that sparks much debate among writers. :) I myself have two methods of outlining, which I should email to you just for fun. You might find them helpful. :D One is the plot skeleton (getting the bones of the story in place, but allowing for leeway in "fleshing" the character out) and the other is a good old outline standby from my school days, which my English book taught me for short stories, and which I've used ever since.

    You might have guessed that I'm an outliner. But what I outline and what I end up with are sometimes two very different things. For instance, in my current novel I have--oh, maybe 8 pages or so of plot notes, character descriptions, themes, beginning/ending, settings, and plot incidents. Now granted, they've shifted quite a bit in the three re-writes I've done, but I think having that original core helped me actually get it finished. Even though the core is very different now, having that structure helped me to change it up one section at a time without the whole thing falling to pieces! But that's been my experience, and as you say, there are many right ways to do it. That's the good thing about writing--it can suit different personalities and different methods. :)

    Good post!


    1. You will, i believe, have received my response to your email, Schuyler, and i just want yo thank you so much for forwarding those two methods to me. i want to try them out as soon as i can with ALTNF, but i guess I will wait till the blog event is finished. It sure does spark a lot of heat among writers, this topic, doesn't. I have tried both ways and at times both methods work, at times neither outlining not 'just writing' do the job and it just needs prayer and some thought! I have also learnt (as i am discovering keenly right now) that each novel has its own methods and gives you a different experience. But generally, if you have ideas, an outline or synopsis is extremely beneficial - I would have thought you to be the outliner, type, actually :)). Thank you for sharing how you go about outlining your novels, Schuyler! it is wonderful to get ideas from fellow writers, and this method was pretty much the one i have been using for most of my writing years as well (the synopsis 8-page description of events, plot-twists, characterisations and themes, etc - it is a good one, that!). Now, I do love outlines and use them (but don't stick to them)... Using the just write as inspiration comes method is just plain scary and right now I quite dislike it, but I can't seem able to do anything else till the ideas flow :).

      Thank you, dear Schuyler! It is good to share writerly things like that :)). God bless!

  2. hello miss joy, I do hope I'm not too late to join in on all your birthday and or anniversary what have you party. I just got your comments now and thought what a splendid idea it was. I love literary get togethers where literature is the focus, unfortunately I have never actually been to a literary get together cyber or otherwise. But I love to hear how other writers near my age group are faring. I sometimes feel lonesome as the only writer around. Well my sister writes poetry so thats not entirely true. But its wonderful to read what others do creatively, I honestly had no idea how people went about writing novels. I never thought there was a "way" I just jumped in head first having only the books I read to be my teachers. When i did look it up I was so uncomfortable with the fetters of rules. That I never made an outline. I'm growing there. I completely get your method of contradiction. :)))
    You have rules but are free. Its all about finding balance, and everyone has a different formula. mine is just less rules and more just write. I normally write scenes as they come to me. and dont worry about writing down every detail. I do have a list of characters and there personalities that gets added to, and a general idea of the plot. But that almost never gets written down. But Im seeing that perhaps plots and outlines are more important than I thought. I will definitely be checking back to read all your delicious posts, I do always enjoy them. there encouraging. I have a special dress I never get to wear all pressed and ready and this pare of amazing day gloves that will go perfectly, and perhaps heels but I might be wearing cowboy boots, it depends. No I love heels to much to pass up a chance to wear those too. I never thought that I could meet so many young ladies who were in most ways a lot like me. so many kindred sprits. Even if I dont often comment, I do really love your blog. I hope that didn't sound creepy. Congrats on two years.
    ~ Rachel hope

  3. Hello Rachel!
    Oh no, you are just in time to join the exciting part of the party, so glad you could make it ;). Me too, I love those kinds of literary events and blog-parties, not that I ever joined in one myself before except once with Jennifer Freitag and Abigail Hartman's book anniversary; it can be loads of fun!

    Yes, it is such an encouragement to know that there are other writerly young ladies who are passionate about their writing and also their faith and the mingling of both and seeking to perfect both, has been such an inspiration and encouragement to me as well. I have learnt so much which I never would have otherwise. I have a few friends who are writers but rarely get to see them, and none of my family are writers, though some are readers. It is good that you have a sister who writes poetry too!

    That method of 'just writing' can be a very good system because outlines can often bog one down too much as well (and all those rules!). I don't know where I read it, but there was this quote that said something along the lines that we must work hard and learn those literary rules so that we can afterwards break them - :D. But they can have some good things too, so I am just trying to learn to capture a balance of the two and see what is best for each novel I am writing! Thank you for sharing how you write your novels, Rachel; I appreciate knowing that! And thanks too for the sweet comment, I am so very happy that you enjoy my blog like this (and no, it doesn't sound creepy, 'tis sweet!).

    God bless and I look forward to reading your tag answers on your blog ;)


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