Outlines, bane or boon? We come down on more on the bane side of things.

A couple weeks back we were reading A Real Look at How I Outline, a Freshly Pressed post by Wren Emerson. If you didn’t see it, pop over take a look. It’s honest. It’s earnest. It’s tech savvy. But you’ll have to decide if it’s actually something that’s helpful to your  own creative process.

If you’re the type of person that likes to obsessively outline before actually writing, it’s probably a great example of how to use technology to make the process easier. On the other hand, obsessively outlining can (and usually with books does) kill off that essential spark of spontaneous, creative life a novel needs to succeed.  So a word to the wise:

If you are writing in the book format, and you, the author, cannot remember all your characters and storylines without a detailed outline, odds are your readers will not like, finish, or recommend your book.

Wolfsbane, the only kind of bane we like!

In writing a book, if you end up with multiple characters with the same name (and you only realize this by outlining), you have made a plot that is so complicated even you, the author cannot follow it, and worse, you have created characters so shallow that even you, the author, don’t remember them. In such a case, a simple change of character name, or addition or subtraction of scenes, will not solve the problem.

The problem here is not your outline. It’s a fundamental missing of the mark — you are asking your reader to do what you yourself cannot, understand your plot and characters without multiple visual aids! It’s completely self-centered writing. You are not thinking of your target readers at all.

Outlines are a great way to avoid actual writing (just like the journaling). If you always outline but never write, or you find looking at your outline draining/uninspiring/confusing, stop outlining. It’s not working for you. A good rule for outlines that work would be keep it under 1 page, and less than 300 words max. More than that, and you’re in the downward spiral heading toward reader confusion. Also, if you constantly need to consult your outline? Not good. You are teetering on the brink of disaster.

If you can get away with noting things, and writing, that’s probably better. Outlines are essentially different than notes. You have an epiphany and jot a note down about a plot twist or character. Your note runs to less than 25 words. You go home and it works into your book the next time you sit down to write. Or it goes into a note file where it’s there to be remembered later, as you write.

Keep in mind that the average reader wants to like a new book.  If you give that reader clear, interesting plots, and well-drawn characters he/she can invest in, you’re in with a chance. If you can make your book a satisfying tale that a reader can easily encapsulate (in about 50 words) and tell a friend about, then, dear writer, you’ll succeed commercially.

Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 8:08 AM  Leave a Comment  
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