Does every novelist begin his work with an outline?
Not Raymond Carver.
“I begin writing the story and it takes a natural course. Most often I’m not aware, when I start a poem or a story, of where it’s going until I get there. Not while I’m writing it.”
Nor Ann Beatti.
“Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. In the context of a story, a fairly boring thought in a character’s head can work better than a brilliant one, and a brilliantly laid out structure can be so much worse for a story than one that is more haphazard.”
D. H. Lawrence trusted his voice and chose to follow where his characters would lead. Of course, Lawrence was a master. Less experienced writers, before setting out after him, might pause at the one immutable rule of writing.
What is the one immutable rule of writing?
Become deft with best practices and only when you’ve mastered them, only when you can identify a hard fast reason for breaking them, should you.
Many writers are pro-outline. Andrés Neuman says, “I know I won’t do what I planned, but I need the plans as a scaffolding.” Bill Wasik sees it as an insurance policy—”Hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline,” he says. “You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagine ever finishing the damn thing—at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.”
And look at the works of James Joyce. Would he have been able to capture the sophistication, the layers of symbolism and archetype, without intricate planning?
It should go without saying that art is organic. Writers should and do disregard the rules, particularly those of grammar. We’ve had a decade or more to become intimately versed in grammar and we’ll start a sentence with a conjunction if we damn well please.
But writing a novel is relatively new to us.
Granted, Ann Beatti makes a point. Sometimes we’re fleshing out a scene and something unexpected happens. A character reacts, a line of dialogue is spoken, or a spark of inspiration lights a new path in our mind.
So go with it. In the course of writing a novel, the unexpected will rear its beautiful head, and these are usually gems. We won’t know until we give it life.
Still, I’m still an advocate of the outline. It’s not holy scripture or the Rosetta Stone. It’s merely a map.
Think about the last trip you took. You’re in the capital of a foreign country for the first time. Can you get from Point A to Point B intuitively? Some people can, but most need GPS.
An outline provides the writer with mile markers. It keeps him on course and prevents him from working for days, even months, before discovering he took a wrong turn. Again, some wrong turns amount to genius, but an outline identifies what is genius and what is superfluous.
Let’s be realistic. World governments can rise and fall in the span between penning a rendition of “Once upon a time” and “The End”. In that time, new ideas and information will come. Where do you keep all these snippets? Simple. Tuck them in outline. Nothing gets lost. You have the perfect resource to refer to.
More than a filing system, though, creating an outline is plot development, as we’ll see in the posts to follow.