Friday, August 12, 2011

Outlining a Successful Writing Career

To Outline or Not to Outline... that's a question I hear often from aspiring writers and even among established authors. There are as many writers opposed to outlining as there are those who depend on the process to get them through the next book. In the interest of sharing, here's my take on the subject:

Did I ever mention that I never thought I had what it took to complete an entire novel?

I did complete a few novels when I was a kid, but they were short. More like novellas, or extended short stories. Nancy Drew under a hundred pages.

As an adult, I concentrated on short stories. I loved writing short so much that as soon as I'd finish one I'd start a new one. The best part was they didn't take long to write. I could immerse myself in one character's world for a few days, come up for air, and then dive back in---but this time into an entirely new situation. I loved that. Still do.

But back in about 2001, with encouragement from another writer, Michael A. Black, I finally agreed to give novel writing a chance even though I didn't believe I could stay with the process for three hundred pages. I was convinced I'd give up well before "THE END."

He strongly suggested I come up with an outline first to help guide me through this first attempt. Could it get any worse? An outline? Uh-huh, yeah. Right. I hated having to come up with outlines in school and I couldn't imagine creating one that wasn't for an assignment. Ick. Ick.

But he promised it would make all the difference. And it did. That first novel eventually became my first published novel - Artistic License - a standalone romantic suspense. The book you see here is the ebook version. The original novel debuted in hardcover in 2004 and went into a second printing. How cool is that? When it went out of print and rights reverted to me, I asked my daughter to design a new cover and I put it up on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords.

But back to the outline: If I'm anything at all, it's polite. Mike pushed the issue. He was sure this would work and I was just as certain it wouldn't but I didn't want to be rude and say so. What happened? I gave it a try. I came up with an outline that sketched out a series of scenes I envisioned.

I had to admit, the process was more fun than I'd expected and once I got into it, I truly enjoyed myself. I started to clearly see the characters I'd be writing about and I understood their motivations as I jotted down ideas for specific scenes. You need to understand, though, that this was a super short outline -- one 8 x 11 sheet of paper divided into about 24 grids. I wrote really, really small.

I finished with a flourish and then had to face the hard truth. Even though I'd completed this now-awesome outline, the fact remained that I still had to actually write the novel. It certainly wouldn't write itself. And it would be a waste to not use all these great ideas now that they were on paper. You know that feeling, don't you? LOL

There was one major worry, however. Would I be bored with the story now that I knew what was going to happen at the end?

Just the opposite. As I dove into writing, fleshing out these characters and putting them into jeopardy, I realized I wasn't tied to the outline with barbed wire the way I'd expected to be. But what about those wonderful, awesome ideas I was so certain would make great scenes? Slashed some. Used others. The best part was when the characters took control and told me what needed to happen next.

I'll give you an example. In Artistic License there's a character named Pete. He's rather slimy and despicable, but I needed a character like him to serve a purpose in the early chapters. He was supposed to enter, interact with my protagonist, Annie, and walk back out again. All done. Gone. We never should have seen him again.

Except... Pete had other ideas. He showed up on schedule, but true to his character, he stuck around and became part of the central story. Rather than fight him on the matter, I went with my gut and decided to see where he'd lead. I have to admit, the contemptible runt knew what he was doing. In real life, I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with the guy, but on paper, he was a whole lot of fun.

What is the point here? For me -- a new writer who had never completed an entire novel -- outlining provided the structure I needed to keep moving forward. Every time I finished a scene, I returned to the outline to see what I'd planned to come next. I can't tell you how many times a change I'd made while writing, a character I'd added, or a conflict I'd created required a change to the original outline. I didn't rewrite the outline, I just kept updating with notes -- and arrows -- and cross-outs -- and whatever I needed to keep the ever-evolving story on track.

Outlining was the very best thing I could have done.

I outlined my next several books the exact same way, but over time I've changed the process slightly. Now I begin with a blank sheet and I put my protagonist's name in the center. Because I write mostly murder mysteries, I then have to come up with a victim as well as a killer. I have to admit right here that Mr. or Ms. Killer doesn't always turn out to be who I think they should be. That's part of the fun of discovery. But I do start out with a plan in mind.

These days I use Post-it Notes on laminated boards to outline my stories. I place Day Markers (Monday, Tuesday, etc.) along the left edge and go from there. I added this step after one of my books accidentally wound up with two Saturdays in a row. (Nope, I won't tell you which book. But a friend noticed it after the book was in print. Yipes!)

Do I adhere to my outline all the way through? Never. Does the story progress exactly as I'd planned?
No. It's just like life. No matter how good your plans are, the unexpected happens. Things change. And that's the beauty of it all, isn't it?

With ten published novels behind me now (some even hitting bestseller lists - woo-hoo!!!), I've learned to trust the process. I do my job setting things up. Then the characters do theirs: shanghaiing all my careful plans.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Julie Hyzy is the award winning author of two bestselling series: the White House Chef Mystery series, and the Manor House Mystery series.
She also has several of her out-of-print titles available as ebooks for Kindle, Nook, etc.
Visit her website at


MaxWriter said...

As a 'pantser' currently stuck toward the end of the middle third of my second novel (first as yet unpublished), I'm listening, here. In a similar stuck place in Book One, I adopted a calendar. Just a Word table where I tracked the essence of every scene I'd written so far. It helped me get my arms around the book and move forward.

Doesn't seem to be working so well right now, though! Maybe I'll write really small and try to finish the calendar for the WIP before I write the scenes.

Thanks for the inspiration, Julie!

Edith Maxwell

Julie Hyzy said...

I've resorted to pantsing myself a couple of times when I convinced myself I didn't have time to come up with an outline. I wound up in a similar situation and had to make notes on each scene's essence, the way you did. Helped a lot and now I tack on these essential notes at the start of each chapter and rely on them for pacing and for reminders of what I've already done. I have such awful short-term memory <grin<

Good luck with the calendar. I find that to be one of my favorite tools!

Shel said...

Fortunately for everyone, I'm not writing fiction. And that plus whether or not to outline is one of the few places where the Bobbsey Twins (Chris and I) differ. One: he wants me to try writing fiction, and Two: I loathe outlining and he says he can't write a school paper without it. Me, I have to go back and write the outline AFTER the paper!

Julie Hyzy said...

LOL, Shel. When Berkley asks for an outline - as they always do several months after the book is turned in - I usually have to go back and reread parts so I can come up with one. The outlines I create for myself are not fit for anyone else's eyes.

You'd think after this many books I would remember to come up with a submittable version as I'm writing the book. Nope.

Janel said...

This post is just what I needed to read right now. :) I write flash fiction (traditional short story's little sibling) and until a few months ago I insisted that I could never write a novel. That was until a cast of characters popped in my head and refused to leave.

I am currently using index cards to outline the story, that should be at least novella length. I'm scared and excited at the same time. Thanks for sharing your experience!

Julie Hyzy said...

Hi, Janel, I'm glad the post helped. I know when I'm writing I find so much inspiration on the web and I'm delighted to be able to be part of that! Index cards are great, aren't they? So many wonderful and different ways to keep our stories out in front of us while the characters play in hour heads!