Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

I just realized something about this novel that I’m supposedly writing.

I need an outline.

A woman writesThis evening, I went to the Word bookstore in Brooklyn to hear N.K. Jemisin read from her latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book of her new Broken Earth trilogy. The reading was wonderful (not surprisingly; since she is high on my list of the best specfic writers around today), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But what struck me was something that was said during the Q&A session, when Nora mentioned that she had started with one outline and eventually realized she needed to drastically change it. All the long-form writers in the room nodded knowingly.

And I thought to myself, “Oh, hell. I need an outline, don’t I?”

Now, you have to understand that I’ve never worked with an outline before. When I write a short story, I usually do one of two things: I either start writing and wait to find out where it’s going to take me, or I start with an ending in mind and build the story to reach that ending. Very often, the story that develops has little to do with what I started with — but if I’m satisfied with it, that’s fine.

Now, however, I’ve realized that I may have been doing the whole novel-writing thing all wrong. I’ve been approaching it as if it’s a short story: Begin at the beginning with a general idea of where it’s going and then start writing. If I hit a wall, move to a different part of the story and write that, and then see how (or if) I can connect the two.

But that won’t work in the long form. For example, if I create a character in the third chapter that will disappear until the 15th chapter, I’d better damn well track what that character’s name is and what they’ve been doing in the meantime. And there’s the whole world-building thing; if I’ve established a society that’s just discovered the combustable engine, I can’t have somebody pull out a smartphone four chapters later. And by the way — if characters change by the end of the novel, shouldn’t I figure out how and why?

In fact, it may be a good idea to have a vague idea of where I intend to end up — especially if I’m going to have a workshop full of writers reading (and critiquing) it.

So, despite my increasing desperation about getting this thing actually done — or, rather, getting enough of it done — I’m going to have to take at least an evening or two and make myself an outline; some kind of textual map of where I’m going with this. I may end up going totally off that map, but at least I can pretend I have some idea what I’m doing.

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2 thoughts on “Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

  1. jdanryan August 5, 2015 / 7:31 pm

    All of my long pieces (the ones finished and not) all required an outline.

    Having one was invaluable in all cases, keeping track of everything as you noted above. In addition, if your method is to write piece by piece and assemble it i order later, it helps as a checklist if you have a scene that desperately *needs* to be written at THAT moment; this way, when you assemble the work later, you have something to consult to know how to solder the seams and make the scene keep the flow from the last part into the next.

    Definitely worth undertaking with anything that can be considered a novel. Also works for novellas, screenplays, and some grocery lists…

  2. Barbara Krasnoff August 5, 2015 / 8:36 pm

    Thanks! Especially the idea that you can use the outline in order to write out of order (which could help a lot of I lose interested in a particular scene but am willing to play with another…)

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