To Outline or Not To Outline

It seems silly to me to totally abscond with a quote from Hamlet and use it as the title of a post, but hey, whatever. I’m not the first to do it, I won’t be the last to do it.

And since, in general and with a few small exceptions, I can’t stand Willy Shakes.

And yes, in case anyone wants to start an argument, I have read and studied Shakespeare, and I do have a learned basis from which to inform my opinion. I was on English Lit major, for crying out loud.

But this is all completely beside the point of my post. This post is my pontification on whether or not to use an outline when writing a novel. Because, you know, I have so much background in writing and publishing.

Let’s skip to the end and give you the answer. And the answer is: maybe.

As answers go, it’s not much, I know that. And that’s probably the point. What can be inferred from an answer of “maybe” is that the process is different for everybody. The way I write is not the way another author will write, and the way they write will be different from the way some other guy/gal writes. Everybody has their own approach.

So I’ll give you my experiences, in brief, and you can form your own opinion from there.

My own experience includes a little of both. For my first book, I ended up using an outline even though I didn’t start with one. I actually started in the middle if the book, with the intent of writing a short story. Once the story was done, I was encouraged by a friend to keep writing, since there seemed to be more story there to explore. As I did, I found I had to rough out where I was headed so that I didn’t become helplessly lost, especially since I was serializing it on a webzine.

My second book, for which I just recently finished the first draft, had no outline at all. It was just an idea I had in my head that I thought would make a good story. It started out small (sensing a pattern here? Yeah, I tend to bite off more than I expect) and when I finally declared the first draft complete, I found I had spent three years and 130,000 words wandering in the wilderness trying to figure out where this story was headed. I’d be lying if I said that, at times, it wasn’t headed for the trash.

Book number three is being drafted as we speak. It’s a different kind of book for me, hard-boiled detective fiction in a first-person POV. I know where this is headed, I know what the end looks like, I know all the stops on this bus ride between here and the terminal. So while I may not have written the outline down in physical form. I’ve outlined the book in my head.

Lastly come two young adult books I’ve got in varying states of first-draft-ness. Again, I know exactly where they are headed and for these, I have physically written down the outline. This has actually allowed me to set them aside for now (because they’re not the stories I want to tell right at this moment) but the outlines allow me jump right back into them when I’m ready or whenever I want to play in those worlds for a bit.

So, do you or don’t you, should you or shouldn’t you? Again, the answer is a big fat maybe. It depends on your process, your MO, how you approach the craft. For my incredibly cluttered head, it certainly helps.

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