O is for Outline, or Are you a Pantser?

On this 15th day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, I’m charged with writing about the letter “O.” When thinking of the letter in terms of writing, two things come to mind:  outline and Oxford comma. Only an English teacher or writer could find either of those topics interesting. At the risk of losing all my blog followers, today I will write about outlining. This will be short and, hopefully, somewhat humorous.

Outlines when a student

When I look back on my years as a student, one of the assignments that never failed to strike fear in my heart was the outline. Looking back on those dreaded outlines, I know what caused them to make my brain freeze up. It was the rigid structure of the outline. It was the Roman numerals. It was the perfect symmetry that was required. Nothing squelches creativity faster than a set of rules.

When I was in school, an outline had to take the form of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and lower case letters. Every part of the outline had to balance or be in perfect symmetry with every other part of the outline. It was that perfect symmetry that always tripped me up.

Sort of like poetry

The only assignment worse than “Make an outline” was “Write a poem.” Poems had rigid rules, too, and I didn’t have a lyrical bone in my body. I still remember the assignment one day in elementary school:  “Go home tonight and write a poem about a bird.” I sweated bullets over that assignment, but I digress.

Do you outline, or are you a pantser?

Writers fall into two camps:  those who outline and those who write by the seat of their pants. Many successful and respected authors say they never outline. They sit down at the computer and just let the story come to them. Other successful and respected authors always write with an outline. They say they need that road map to keep them on track with the story line.

I’m not a successful or respected writer, but I always outline. That is just bizarre, considering my background in outline hatred. Let me clarify, though. Outlining as a writer has looser rules than the ones I had to make in school. I don’t have to turn in the outline for a grade. My outline will not be seen or critiqued by anyone, unless I so choose.

Scenic plot outline

Where I hit my stride in writing now is when I get past the basic outline and move on to the scenic plot outline. In a scenic plot outline, I divide each chapter into scenes. I make enough notes about each scene so I can recall what I had in mind days or weeks later when I get around to writing that scene. My scenic plot outline is made up of single words, phrases, and sentences – whatever I think I’ll need later to remind me of what I had in mind as I thought through the plot. I rely on the scenic plot outline when it’s time to flesh out the scene in the rough draft.

Where I am today

All that said, the word “outline” still scares me. Today I find myself at a place of decision in light of the fact that I concluded a week ago that I needed to start over on my novel in progress. If I’m going to pursue the writing of a historical novel based on the 1771 event I want to work with, I need to do additional research before I can outline the story. That lets me off the hook for a little while, but the day will come – and it won’t be long – when I have to patch together something that resembles an outline.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. And whether you are outline or you’re a pantser, If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet