TO OUTLINE—OR NOT
He also says, “I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.”
I suspect King’s brain works in such a way that a synopsis organically forms in there. Most of us are not that gifted.
Fantasy novelist Terry Brooks swears by outlining. When I taught advanced fiction writing at the University of Washington Outreach Program, Terry came to my class and spoke about his writing habits.
“Outline. Outline. Outline,” he advised.
He told me his very first book was a New York Times bestseller. Can you imagine starting out with that kind of success? And all his following 22 novels have been on the list, so why would anyone suggest he switch to Stephen King’s free form model?
At the other end of the spectrum, J.A. Jance, a bestselling mystery writer, says, “I met outlining in Mrs. Watkins' sixth grade geography class in Bisbee, Arizona. I didn't like outlining then, and nothing that's happened to me since has changed my mind.”
I’m not about to tell you which method is best because it’s a very personal decision. I don’t like either extreme. I agree with Stephen King that outlining an entire novel, detailing each chapter, can often make it feel forced and formulaic. However, an outline doesn’t necessarily mean the Roman numeral type that Mrs. Watkins taught. It can be a scene list, a step sheet that details the action, pacing and character development or the traditional three-act model containing the setup, the confrontation and the resolution.
You can use any of these structures for a short or a full-blown outline for your novel, and you can change it at any point. It’s MUCH easier than going into the manuscript and making the changes after you’ve stumbled through writing the novel.
If I don’t have a good sense of the plot, I find myself wandering the landscape, traveling the wrong direction and smacking into dead ends. I need the basic plot in my head, if not on paper. Once I have that, I allow for what I call “the process of discovery.”
For example, as I was writing The Starlite Drive-in, it occurred to me about halfway through the book that the young heroine, Callie Anne, could read lips. A childhood of wandering the drive-in grounds and watching soundless versions of the movies on the big screen led her naturally to lip-reading. I went back and set up her skill earlier in the plot, so when she uses it later in a more serious situation, it’s believable. If I had outlined the novel to the point of inflexibility, I would have lost that detail.
Try an outline, using whatever model works best for you. If it still feels confining, consider a synopsis instead. If that doesn’t work for you, you may be a glutton for flexibility. If you can write a best-selling novel by flailing at it, go for it.