Friday, January 27, 2012

How Not Outlining Screwed Up My Novel

How I feel right now
I’ve written four articles about the importance of outlining: How to Prep for a Book: OutlineHow to Prep for a Book: Chapter OutlineWhy Outlining is so Awesome, and One More Reason to Outline. I promised I wouldn’t harp on it anymore. I lied. This is why you should never make promises on your blog.

I recently decided to rewrite Sacred Fire, a novel of the Vestal Virgins. As I look through the things I need to fix, I see more and more how making an adequate outline would have prevented many of my problems.

For example, when I started writing the book, I had only a vague idea of how the story would end. You’ve heard authors say, “I’ll know how the novel ends when I get to it,” right? That was my plan.

When I got to the ending, there was only one logical conclusion. I had to get from point A to point B, and because of the way I set things up, there was only one path I could take.

But I didn’t like it. I had to add a random element to Tuccia’s character, which forced me to go back and apply it to the entire story (which I didn't do very well), and it lead to an ending I wasn’t sure about. To this day, I’m not completely happy with how the story ends.

I don’t know how I’m going to fix it, but I do know this; if I had outlined my book better, I would have known the ending before I got to it. I would have had more control over the direction the book was taking, instead of following the inevitable whether I liked it or not.

Writing your second book is a million times easier than the first. That's why so many authors advise you to move on when you're struggling with your first book, instead of rehashing old mistakes.

I wish Sacred Fire was my second; this book is so worth getting right, I can't abandon it. But sometimes I wish I could!


  1. Sticking to it is a good thing. At least looking back, you can see how things could have gone better. That way, you'll know what to do better for the next one.

  2. Is it possible that you're stunting your manuscript by placing too many expectations on it? Stories tend to grow and blossom over time, ripening like a fine wine. If you listen closely, Sacred Fire is probably telling you what it wants and needs. Like Michelangelo said to Pope Julius concerning the Sistine Ceiling, "It will be done when it's done!"

  3. Shephen: I agree that I might be going too hard on myself and my book. I think the book is old enough to make some pretty good wine by now, though. *sigh*

  4. I def agree; I just couldn't abandon my book because I think it's so worth getting right. So that just means more revisions. I'm still learning everything as I go, but every day I work at it, the book gets better. It's almost as if it's my second (and third and fourth) book because I've rewritten so much of it. You know it's worth it if you keep wanting to write it!

  5. Yup. My second ms was WAY better than my first ... but I LOVE LOVE LOVE the concept of my first. So, even though I "know" I should shove it in a drawer ... I'm revising and reworking it. Can't help it. I want it to live and see the light of day!!

  6. This sounds so familiar. I had no outline for my first novel and it was like building a house without blueprints. I finally decided it was as good as it would ever get and the significant structural flaws just couldn't be fixed. I left it alone for 2 years. Then I picked it up and, like you, felt I couldn't let it go. Happily, time, perspective and more knowledge helped me recognize solutions that I couldn't see before and my current draft feels really good. I've lost count of which draft this is, which tells you something.

  7. I dunno. Just the word "outline" throws a scare into me that reverberates clear back to when we had to do that in grade school. I don't think I'm any better at it now than I was then. And, thing is, back then at least I knew what I was outlining - with a novel, you don't know what you're going to write until you're writing it.

    So, for one thing, I don't call it outlining.

    But I do sketch out some notes for where I think the story will go - and often that means *as* I'm writing it and get an idea for something that should happen a few chapters ahead. So I jot that down. (Even if it's only a funny phrase that one character might say.)

    But I think for me, two things work best. First, I have to have the start that I like, and often that's just one sentence. And then it really helps to know what the end will be. And it might not exactly be the end of the story, or maybe not the end of the "plot" part of the story. For my next project, I have the first sentence and I've written out the last scene - which takes place after the end of the action in the story (if that makes sense).

    The other thing that really helps is to know how much I'm going to write. And I'm aiming at 70k words - because Hemingway & Fitzgerald agreed that 70,000 words was the "perfect" length for a novel. And those guys ought to know.

    Knowing the length I'm going to write it gives me a pretty fair indication as I'm writing where things should happen. I figure most stories should fit a 3-act structure, or as you might say: beginning, middle and end.

    So as I start to write, there's a bit of form, a tentative structure, a beginning and an end - and then I only need to fill in the 70,000 words in between. But as I do, those story notes come into play and help find the way through the story - without inhibiting it so much that it feels too rigid.

    For someone who's never been able to outline, and who has always hated them ... that's my alternative.

  8. This is so true. I've always resisted outlining, but most of my writing life has consisted of short fiction. A mentor suggested I work from an outline for my first novel, which I'm still writing. Always keeping in mind that nothing is set in concrete so I'm still free to create outside the borders drawn in an outline, it really does make it much easier. I'm much less inclined to think, "I don't know what to do next."

    By the way, thank you for sponsoring the "Critique My Blog Blogfest." A great idea!


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