In my last Writing & Publishing Tips post, we talked about different writing tools. In talking about advanced writing software like Scrivener and yWriter for longer works, I mentioned that I have been outlining even my short story and novelette length eBooks.
This was kind of a blow to my self-image, because I’d always imagined myself as a discovery writer, or “pantser.” I tend to think of myself as a free-spirited, unstructured type. But after struggling for over six months to write a short story without an outline or plot in place, I ended up reverting to the process that worked for me when I had to write a novella.
When I say “outline” I may not be saying what you think I’m saying. Most of us who had high school English think of an outline as a hierarchical numbered list, with roman numerals and things. When I started hanging out with other writers, I found out when you’re writing fiction, an outline can be a list like that, but usually it’s just the shortest version of your story you can write. It may look more like the blurb on the back of a book than a neat bullet list. For a lengthy epic fantasy novel, the outline might be several pages. For a short story like Big Teeth or Blowhard, it might be a half a page to a page.
Learning to outline was what helped me get from “having a cool story idea” to “having a completed story.” When you get stuck, it’s not because you don’t know what happens next. It’s because you don’t know exactly how to phrase what happens next. If you’re willing to write an imperfect draft, you can still plug on through and get words on paper. Once that’s done, it’s much easier to go back later and edit those words into something better.
When I say “a finished story,” please bear in mind I don’t mean a “ready for publication story.” I mean “a complete story with a beginning, middle and end.” You’re not actually finished with the story. You’ll still have lots of editing and proofreading if you’re lucky, and possibly major rewrites if you’re not. But you’re finished with the draft. You have wrested a coherent narrative out of the aether. GO, YOU!
I won’t say that outlining is absolutely necessary for any writer. Lots of the most successful authors of all time didn’t or don’t outline. However, if you’re perennially getting stuck in the middle of your draft, it’s worth giving a shot.