The Great Debate

One of the greatest debates among authors involves setting up a novel. Do you start with an outline or do you simply sit down and write; flying by the seat of your pants. These two sides – commonly referred to as “Outliners” and “Pantsers” -each insist that their method is the only way to write a book! Stephen King famously swears that he never outlines, instead letting it all fall together as he writes. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir to the Craft, he encourages other writers to skip the outlining step and jump right into the story. He has a general idea of where the story is going, so he knows how to build up tension to the defining moment, but he doesn’t plan scene by scene. Another famous “Pantser” is Meg Cabot, who passionately hates to outline, but admits that it might work for other writers.

If, like me, you haunt Pottermore, you know that J.K. Rowling is a diligent outliner. She maps her books out scene by scene, so she knows exactly when to insert that little detail about book seven into the second act of book one. She has pages of handwritten outlines on Pottermore, and it’s fascinating and awe-inspiring to see all of her little maps. In her case, I don’t think she could have achieved the depth of writing and world building that she did if she had not outlined her novels first. Same goes for George R. R. Martin, who’s mammoth tomes follow dozens of characters in many different lands. Hell, I almost need an outline to read Game of Thrones! If you look at his original outlines, featured here you can see that The Song of Fire and Ice series was planned as a trilogy and was very different from what we read today. It’s a wonderful example of how outlines can be organic and change.

I describe myself as an “Organic Outliner.” That’s a phrase I made up to describe my process. It means that I start with an outline, but am very open to (in fact expect) that my outline will change as my story pans out. Most of the novels I write require a lot of research; either historical fiction or fantasy, I build new worlds or need a lot of detail to put my readers in the time that we are visiting. As I research I start my outline. I’ve found that if I don’t outline, I tend to write in circles because I don’t have a clear idea of my goal. I might know how the book will end, but not the path it needs to take to get there. If I don’t have a plan, I repeat myself.

As I’m writing, my characters come to life and tend to start talking to me. I often find that once I’m in the story, they have a story of their own that needs to come out. So, my outline changes. But I still have a clear idea of where I’m going. And now that I’m working on a character driven novel, I’ve found that I need character goals and arcs mapped out for each chapter.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter how you write. Start with an outline, jump right in, or somewhere in between. Learn what works for you and stick with it. Here are some awesome sites that help you learn how to outline your novel, and also ones who give you “Pantsers” tips. Happy writing!

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