Thursday, February 17, 2005


Jim Winter wrote an interesting post about novel outlining on his blog. (Actually, I think he was responding to another post on someone else's blog. And for all I know that someone else was responding to.... etc)

Anyway, so Jim Winter was doing this interesting post on outlining. And of course, I came up with a theory... theory... theory...

For the record, before I wade in on my theorising, I do not outline. I have never outlined, insofar as an outline is some sort of document prepared before writing a novel which says what will happen at each stage, how it will end etc. The furthest I have gone down that route is taking a few notes which take me, in a crude way, up to chapter three or so. I might do this after coming up with an opening scenario, and an idea about what sort of territory I could venture into. From there on in it's travelling without a map, chapter by chapter, not knowing how the hell it's all going to end. This blindness will last right up to the last chapter.

Why do I do it that way?

  1. I cannot be arsed to do an outline. It's just more work
  2. An outline seems, to me, too much like a "project plan", some work-related document that makes me yawn just thinking about it
  3. That old chestnut: an outline is a story in itself. When it's told, I don't want to tell it again. Might be a cliche to say it, but it's true
  4. Writing is a trip. You drop acid, you want to go somewhere new and have a crazy adventure. Same with writing

There are of course drawbacks. I might get lost on my way to the end of a novel, and ultimately have to track back and cut a big chunk. But, frustrating as it is, I don't mind that. I take it that I was meant to go down that avenue and see that it led to a place I don't want (my character) to go. (I should also say I've got ten or so unfinished novels on my hard-drive, abandoned at 30,000 or so words. Sometimes I just get lost in the woods and die before I can get out. Think Blair Witch.)

Now, here's my theory:
Writers who like outlining prefer reading outlined novels. And vice-versa.

What I mean is, I can usually tell if a novel has been outlined. It's neat, it's tight, it runs like an Aston Martin. (If done well.) By the same token I can tell if it has not been outlined. Maybe it's slightly messy. It's a bit baggy in places. IT FLIES LIKE A FUCKING ROCKET. (If done well.)

Both types of novel have their place. And clearly both have a market. But I think the two are distinct, that the end product is a different animal in each case. And I think readers, like writers, can tell (subconsciously or not), and go for one or the other by preference.

So arguments go out the window, as far as which is better (outlining or seat-of-pants-flying). As a writer or reader you're predisposed to one or the other, and there's not much you can do about it. That would be like trying to turn gay penguins straight.

But, you know, it's just a theory.

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