The daunting outline

When you want to get your first novel published, you have to submit the entire manuscript for consideration. Nonfiction is different in that you can get a book deal based on a detailed proposal. I always envied this. But, now, as I’m working on pitches for various ideas for my second novel, I’m realizing the difficulties.

The way it works is that I can submit a few sample chapters and an outline to secure a second book deal with my publisher. I consider this the Loyalty Clause of the contract. They’ve worked with you before, they know what they’re getting into, so they don’t need the whole book to make a decision. If you leave your publisher and go elsewhere, you’re back to square one, submitting the whole manuscript.

What’s difficult for me as I consider pitches for a second novel is that I don’t often know how a story is going to turn out until I write it. The sample chapters are easy. But asking me to summarize exactly how the characters and plot are going to evolve beyond those chapters, and how the story will eventually end, gives me anxiety. I DON’T KNOW. I JUST DON’T KNOW. For me, the not knowing is the beauty of the thing. For my publisher, not knowing is probably cause for concern.

In the July/August issue of Poets & Writers, Benjamin Percy wrote a piece titled “Superpowered Storytelling,” in which he discusses how he has to turn in outlines for the comic books he writes.

He writes:

“I have to hand in a rough skeleton of every issue for editorial approval. I blueprint my novels as well, but not so strictly as this. I like to know the end, know the major set pieces, know how the characters might change, and then improvise the rest, caught up in the emotional thrust of composition. So I fought this requirement at first, saying that it felt inorganic, a left-brain imposition on a right-brain process. But here’s the thing: I’ve never followed any of these outlines, not in a paint-by-numbers sort of way. Once I start writing, I always change things around, and no one ever complains. The editors just want to feel assured that I’m going in the right direction. And that’s how I now feel: assured. I’ve learned to enjoy the process of outlining, treating it like a rehearsal or a sparring match before the big fight. A way to get limber, excited, confident. Which is far preferable to staring at the white oblivion of an empty document, not knowing where to go next or blindly chasing a five-page scene that ends up deleted.”

This helped change my perspective on outlines. Maybe I don’t have to feel trapped by them. Maybe they don’t have to be the ball and chain in my love with writing. And, maybe, they don’t have to be perfect (gasp). It’s freeing to know that Percy deviates from his outlines. They aren’t contracts; just guides. I still think they’re annoying, and they aren’t natural for me at all. But, they’re a necessity in this business–just one more thing I’ve learned in the last few months.

Here is some proof that I’m not alone in my disdain for the outline:

“I do not outline. There are writers I know and count as my friends who certainly do it the other way, but for me, part of the adventure is not knowing how it’s going to turn out.” — Joyce Maynard

“I don’t make outlines or plans because whenever I do, they turn out to be useless. It is as if I am compelled to violate the scope of any outline or plan; it is as if the writing does not want me to know what is about to happen.” — Leslie Marmon Silko

“Outlines are the last resource of the bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” — Stephen King

outlining novels
And then there are those who love outlines:

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact. The most breathtaking prose and brilliantly drawn characters are wasted if the plot meanders and digresses. Outlining lets you create a framework that compels your audience to keep reading from the first page to the last.” — Jeffery Deaver

“I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish.” — James Patterson

“I found out that if you make an outline you’re much less likely to get blocked when you get into the middle of the story.” — Rick Riordan

If you’re a writer, do you outline? Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “The daunting outline

  1. I just learned about your blog from my friend Jamie LeRoy’s blog – she talked about your book and featured an interview with you today. I am also thinking of writing a novel this November for NaNoWriMo, and I have started working on an outline. I kind of know the basic plot that I want to follow, and I have more specifics about the first 4 chapters – which characters voice I will use, etc. But I also know that a lot of the details will come in the writing. I am hoping though that if I can complete the outline before November, it will make the writing go faster. I have never written anything more than a short story before, but I think this could be a fun challenge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *