Tuesday, October 18, 2011


New Novelists ---To outline or Not?

The Trouble this Tuesday is this:
What should a first time novelist to do?
Outline before you begin to write or just get on with it & start writing?

If you are seriously considering writing a novel you may have already taken a class from a published author or attended a panel discussion of novelists on the question of “How do you write your story?”

You will have heard about those who never start writing until they have an extensive outline and those who write without a map and ‘find’ the story. While methods vary widely, most writers lean decidedly toward one camp or the other. They’ll tell you it doesn’t much matter which you choose, as long as it works for you.

Terrific. Nice to know there’s no magic formula in a creative art. But here you sit, wanting to write a manuscript. One with a chance of being published and sold. Or perhaps you have a collection of false starts, nicely stored on a disk or lining a bottom drawer, but unfinished. You simply want to finish one book. What do you do?

If you are like me — a struggling first-time novelist — you’re looking for more guidance than, “whatever works for you.” How do I get from the seed of a novel idea to an accumulated 90,000 words and the phrase “The End”?

What known factors can influence the method most likely to deliver you to this goal and positively influence the quality of your end product?

Take some time to consider the following four factors — Personality, Learning Style, Work Habits and Story. Today I’m discussing the first two and will continue the discussion tomorrow. Then see if you can’t “P-L-o-W-S” right through your first draft!

Your Personality:

It’s your turn to make dinner. Do you: a) leaf through store flyers, magazines and cook books to find a new recipe using that week’s sale items and shop from a list of required ingredients; or b) do you wander through the local farmers’ market until a brilliant combination of colour, freshness and available produce suggests a dish you hope will fill the bill for supper that night?

A friend invites you to share a road trip. She wants to set out on a real adventure. Does it a) fill you with deep anxiety not to know where you will sleep each night and that you may miss some vital landmark as you wander about on a whim; or b) your only question is, “Do I need to pack a bathing suit or a snowsuit and how long should I have my newspaper cancelled?”

You’ve been assigned the job of writing the report on your work unit’s latest project. Do you a) Consult with your work mates, take notes and group their comments around common issues and lessons before beginning to draft the report? Or b) Sit down at your desk and pound out a summary of the process, challenges and successes of the last six months in chronological order?

If you answered A to these scenarios, my theory is you will prove to be an ‘outliner’ as a novelist while B answers might suggest you’ll be a ‘fly by seat of your pants’ writer.

Some of us work better with the security of a plan. Knowing where you’ll sleep each night means one less thing to worry about and frees you to enjoy each day’s adventure. Others feel thwarted by too many “thou shalts”. Spontaneity in all matters breeds greater creativity and energy for these folks.

Learning Styles:

Can you recite poetry from memory? Or do you struggle to remember the words, but vividly recall your feelings when you first read it?

Do you prefer to listen to lectures on a topic of interest or to watch a How-To video on You-Tube?

When returning to a friend’s home for a second visit, can you find your way back by visualizing the trip or do you print out the address and directions again?

When you wrote exams, did you use colour-coded crib sheets? Or were five bullet points all you needed to craft your A+ essay question?

People who learn experientially or by a hands-on method may find the “Let’s see where this opening will take us” a more comfortable approach for their writing.

Visual learners and analytical types may want pictures or charts or decision trees to bring clarity to their knowledge retention and thought processes. If this is closer to your style, perhaps you envision writing with a time line pasted up in front of you or bulletin board tacked full of index cards arranged by scene resembling building blocks. Outlining could suit your learning style.

Tomorrow, Wicked Wednesdays will look at personal work habits and the story being written to help novice writers decide whether they are outliners or plowing-ahead writers.

Susan C. Gates is a reformed banker and a recovering policy analyst living in Ottawa. Her works of short crime fiction are published in recent editions of the Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies. A member of Capital Crime Writers since 2000, Susan has served on its executive. Her first novel, Paper Daughter, has gestated longer than an elephant’s embryo. Well overdue, its delivery promises to be an arduous one.


  1. Great post, Susan. Good to know seat of the pants is a viable option because that's how I live!

  2. I, too was a seat-of-the-pants gal but my publisher wants an outline for each book. Groan. But what's surprised me is that it makes the writing process so much smoother. Who knew!