To outline or not to outline, that is the question

While I was going through a box of office-related items packed up from my old desk when we moved it out and moved my new desk in, I found a notebook I’d given up on finding a long time ago.  It was full of character analyses, back story and miscellaneous ideas for a young adult novel I started some time ago that stalled.  It’s from my pre-outlining, write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants era.  That didn’t work well for me.  My personality is flexible, try anything, push boundaries and take what comes.  My non-fiction writing experience has shown that to work for about three to five chapters.  At least that’s my experience.  Maybe I should have taken the fact that I can’t play chess outside of learning the basic moves.  I can’t visualize the game beyond the move that’s happening on the board at any given moment.  If you’re good at chess, maybe you don’t need to outline novels.  Let me know on that.  I’d like to hear.

I workshopped the beginning of that particular story on the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  The link is on the Resources page at right.  I got some valuable feedback, positive and negative.  One critiquer who was a published YA author, after listing some advice, said she liked it and couldn’t wait to read what happens next.  The problem was, neither could I, and I had no idea where to take it from there.  I had lots of ideas but was very unsure on how to develop them, and I couldn’t decide who was going to be the bad guy.  I just let it percolate from the back to the fore of my brain and back again.  Round and round it went, but not forward.  Shortly after that I wrote, among other things, what was in the notebook I found, but it was really wheel spinning.

After a couple more great ideas that wowed very few chapters, my plots again fizzled.  I put novel writing on the shelf for a while and started reading like a maniac and writing occasional shorts, flash pieces, essays and slice of life essay-type things.  I always proof what I read, even if it’s an entertaining novel.  My mother had a full-time office day job and evenings (sometimes late into the night) she typed term papers and theses for students on a portable electric typewriter with a manual return.  Ah, those were the days.  I often proof-read anything from freshman reports to science-heavy doctoral theses.  Now I read to entertain and educate myself.

How could I possibly pass up an opportunity to be entertained and educated all within the covers of a novel?  When I read, I decide what I like about the way a particular author handles plot or action scenes or relational interaction; what I like or don’t like and what I’d do differently, like it or not.

I also visit the authors’ web sites, which often contain a plethora of insight into how that particular author works.  That advice can be a couple of short articles that are funny and informative and offered as fiction, like Kerrelyn Sparks at, who really brings her point home with humor and wit.  She writes the Love at Stake series.  On the other hand, writers’ sites can contain a mother-lode of detailed instruction that goes on for pages and pages, like Jennifer Ashley’s writing blog: She writes The Stormwalker series as Allyson James as well as many other series under the noms de plume Jennifer Ashley and Ashley Gardner.  Then there’s Jim Butcher’s blog on writing:  He writes The Dresden Files series.  These are some of my favorite authors and they write some of my all-time favorite series.  Isn’t it lovely that they also like to share their knowledge about writing?  Yes!


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