This week I reached the point in the new novel where I decided it was time to do an outline. That point is roughly 75 percent into the book.
My version of an “outline” is a one or two sentence summary of each chapter I’ve written so far. This helps me see the larger shape of the narrative and to catch any discrepancies in times and dates. (There are usually a lot of those since I have always had a somewhat fuzzy idea of what day of the week or even what month it is. I suppose that comes partly from living for so many years in Florida where one season is almost indistinguishable from another.) Outlining after-the-fact also lets me see the rising and falling tension and suspense. From this vantage point, I can sometimes see that I need to adjust the pace of the storyline or simply move chapters so that I avoid long passages of exposition and backstory–those necessary features that often can slow down the reading experience.
I’ve met a lot of novelists who outline extensively before they set out. Some writers even “write the last sentence before they write the first.” These are successful novelists, so obviously this system works for them. I’ve met one or two who write long outlines (200 or 300 pages) for novels that are only slightly longer than the outlines. These folks have also done quite well in the publishing world.
So I don’t think the way I work is necessarily better or worse than the way anyone else works. It’s simply the only way that I can manage to keep my excitement level high enough to forge through hundreds of manuscript pages and lots and lots of deletions.
I’ve always found Elmore Leonard’s take on this writer’s issue to be apt. “Why would I write the novel if I knew how it turned out?” That was his line. As usual, it’s succinct, dry and perfectly to the point.
I started my writing life as a poet and one of the aesthetic beliefs I acquired early and held to was that every poem should be a process of discovery. You start with something you know and work toward something you didn’t know when you began. Frost put it this way: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” He believed that the only authentic purpose for writing was to discover a new truth, or a new slant on the world.
So I start with only the most vague road map. I want to go to some general location–north or south. And I want to write about some general subject matter. So I always begin by doing a month or so of research on this subject matter. Sometimes that entails traveling to a place to learn about the people and location that I want to use. (As I did in Gone Wild when I traveled to Borneo and Brunei and Singapore to research the illegal trade in orangutans.) Sometimes it involves reading books and articles and other written info on the subject I’m tackling.
The obvious downside of writing without an outline is that sometimes I take a narrative path that looks good at the outset but turns into a dead end and must be deleted. I’ve sometimes had to delete a hundred pages because I took a wrong turn that I didn’t see till later.
I don’t recommend my method for other kinds of writing. Essays, for instance, require a little more planning and outlining.
I’m sure this college kid would’ve been a more successful student if he’d outlined.